If an ad isn't huge, doesn't have digital media, doesn't shake, rattle or roll, it might as well not be there. But there is so much of it that one is hard-pressed to remember any of it. Marketers and ad people at the event talked about the issue of saturation but only in passing, as a tactical consideration. But saturation is more than a tactical problem, and it's a problem nobody can solve.
What influence does the ubiquity of out-of-home advertising have on consumer interest, recall, engagement and general tolerance? The New York Times' Stuart Elliott, moderating a panel, alluded to this with a comment he made about an outdoor arms race, the implication being that at some point it all becomes a cacophonic riot of ads whose major accomplishment will have been to create a populace whose eyes are glued to the sidewalk or to car bumpers in front of them.
Elliott referred to the film "Minority Report" to make a point -- I can't remember the context -- about targeted out-of-home ads. In it, Tom Cruise steals a bag of human eyeballs -- which is almost too perfect a metaphor given the Eyes On measurement protocol that starts next year -- so he can get his replaced for the sake of anonymity. After the operation, he passes interactive ads at a futuristic mall, where the billboards read his retinal image and call out to him. Unfortunately, his new eyeballs had belonged to a Chinese American, which makes for a bit of drollery.
There's another movie based on a Philip K. Dick novel that may paint a more accurate picture of where urban ads are going. In that film, advertising is an important set piece in an urban dystopia of tangled streets lost between canyon walls of immense buildings under incessantly weeping skies; a uniformly grey super city where what color there is comes from gigantic, super-chromatic video ads that shout, woo, titillate, coruscate, and generally seduce the hordes. It is a world of images and voices on walls, screens, windows and even on a dirigible on which a video display has a beautiful woman urging denizens of the city to consider going "off world."
There is a glimpse of utopia at the film's end: open, empty countryside through which the hero and his android girlfriend drive.
At the out-of-home marketing event attendees were optimistic about the direction technology might take the medium: the more digital, moving and interactive outdoor ads can be the better. I don't think so. In fact, the best example of out-of-home I heard at the event was the old-school approach taken by Discovery Channel to promote some of its tent-pole properties: a branded ice cream truck handing out free ice cream.
You can measure eyeball engagement all you want, but at some point there must certainly be an inverse relationship between the level of digital noise coming from ubiquitous screens and consumer engagement, particularly in high-volume spots like Times Square.
The more noise there is, I'll wager, the less people will actually remember. Or worse, the more they will train themselves to look at the sidewalk.