21 March 2017 13:30:36 IST

A management and technology professional with 17 years of experience at Big-4 business consulting firms, and seven years of experience in high-technology manufacturing, Rajkamal Rao is a results-driven strategy expert. A US citizen with OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) privileges that allow him to live and work in India, he divides his time between the two countries. Rao heads Rao Advisors, a firm that counsels students aspiring to study in the United States on ways to maximise their return on investment. He lives with his wife and son in Texas. Rao has been a columnist for from the year the website was launched, in 2015, and writes regularly for BusinessLine as well. Twitter: @rajkamalrao

Highway billboards are great marketing devices

Pic credit: Mack Male/Flickr

While driving, mundane tasks are outsourced. Billboards become a great source of entertainment

For organisations, getting a message across to customers is not easy. They have to choose from a variety of media — print, TV or online — with one simple goal: catch the undivided attention of a reader or viewer in the hope that the message sticks.

Types of advertising

Consumers are bombarded with both serial and parallel advertising modes. Serial formats are those in which customers have no choice but to consume the ad — such as a commercial during a cricket match. Sure, you can switch to another channel but then, you run the risk of missing that next boundary from Virat Kohli — which is unacceptable.

Parallel formats are those where your eyes hover over the medium to a different part of the screen or page to avoid an ad that disinterests you. Newspaper advertisements are an example. If you are not particularly interested, you simply turn to a different ad or a column.

Intelligent advertising

Facebook and Twitter ads are intelligently placed in your news feed, intermixed with updates from your friends or people you follow. These social media giants know that your attention span is extremely limited, scrolling through dozens of updates, so the catchier and more context-driven messages have a chance of getting through to you.

Google and Facebook spend billions of dollars in artificial intelligence research in an attempt to understand the context and tailor an ad for you to make you act. This is why Google and Facebook are reported to garner 85 per cent of the online advertising market by revenue — an incredibly high market share, creating a virtual duopoly in the digital media industry.

Low-tech yet effective

Highway billboards may be low-tech compared to a Facebook ad, but they may be just as, if not more, effective.

On long drives, your attention is on the road ahead. Modern technology has made it possible to outsource mundane tasks (such as keeping the accelerator pressed) to the car’s cruise control system. So all that a driver is doing is controlling the steering wheel. The human mind is capable of a lot more than this activity, so the driver’s thoughts often wander around to other ideas.

A billboard can capture the lion’s share of an idle driver’s mind. Although fleeting — images after all disappear in an instant when you’re driving at 100 kms/hour with no ability to physically replay what you just read unless you hang a U-turn — a nicely crafted message can stick in a driver’s subconscious for several minutes. If the same sign is repeated a few times, and the message is catchy, a driver could be sold on the idea.

An instance

This week saw a streak of warm weather grip the state of Texas at the same time that the US north east was reeling under blizzard conditions. I took my 14-year-old son on a 570 mile round trip ride on my Honda VTX 1800 Cruiser to visit a relative in Houston.

One of the advantages of riding on a motorcycle with a loud V-Twin exhaust is that conversation with your pillion rider becomes impractical. Sure, there are helmets with earpieces and microphones, but the ambient noise, added to the sound of passing vehicles, is too high but for the shortest verbal exchanges. So you just look around and take in the scenery with no distractions that are so common in a car ride, such as reading, music, and video.

Highway billboards, in this controlled scenario, became a great source of entertainment and amusement.

“Does Advertising Work?” screamed a huge sign. Brilliantly, the message said underneath, “Just Did!”. In five words, the creator had convinced me that billboards work enough for me to not only remember the sign but to also write an entire article about it. There were follow up signs with the same content — and I noticed that there was a catchy website address and phone number below where one could contact the owner of the billboard to lease advertising space.

“Don’t drink and drive!” shouted out another huge sign. “We can wait” the cheeky sub-line read, and towards the bottom right was the logo and name of a funeral home.

Yes to food!

On Interstate 35, a major highway connecting Dallas to Austin, there’s a large repair shop catering to fixing large trucks. This company has not erected a billboard but a gleaming yellow truck cab — not an image but an actual truck cabin — high above the horizon sitting on tall stilts.

Drivers notice that a huge truck appears to be flying like an airplane because the scene is so out of the ordinary. In the vast Texas landscape where there’s nothing around, this truck on stilts is an eyesore. But the company has cleverly delivered its message. My friends and I often use this sign as a landmark.

Some billboards try to read your mind and play on your emotions. It is a fact that we consume more food when we travel — especially on trains and by road. Our static bodies somehow crave for every snack that is thrust our way and while we would never eat like this at home or at work, suddenly, all rules seem to be off.

“We hope you’re hungry!” said a huge billboard. I was not hungry at all, but the sign got my attention. “Exit 338, make right!” said the by-line and the golden arch logo of McDonald’s beckoned me to act. I switched my eyes back to the road ahead and saw that Exit 337 just flashed by. One mile away — about a minute to Exit 338. I shouted to my son that I was going to take an exit. He had seen the sign too and gave me a thumbs up which I could see in my rear view mirror.

Minutes later, over hot french fries and coffee, we both began to marvel at how effective the sign had been. It got our attention. It made us act immediately (not postpone to some future unknown date). And we made a buy, although we never needed to. Facebook and Google would kill for this success.