Billboards have gone up and down in desirability many times over the past century. It’s always the same cycle: advertisers find the next hot thing and then get burned out on it and return to their roots of delivering ad messages that really work. In this Billboard Mastery podcast, we’re going to review how the cycle has now gone full circle, and billboard demand and occupancy is going up.
Episode 68: Everything Old Is New Again Transcript
There's an old adage that everything old is new again. This is Frank Rolfe, the Billboard Mastery Podcast, and we're seeing that occur right now in the billboard industry. So why are billboards and billboard demand and billboard occupancy suddenly rising after many years of being somewhat static? Well, it's because people always are looking for the new big thing, and billboards, which have hung in there for over 100 years now, suddenly are back in the limelight. But what is causing that? I drove down Interstate 55 recently. There used to be a lot of vacant billboards. There wasn't a single vacancy in that whole stretch of road. I drove for almost two straight hours. So why? Why is occupancy getting stronger in those markets? Well, the first one is online advertising, saturation and burnout.
Everyone is tired of the endless ad flow that comes from your cellphone and your computer. When that stuff came out, it was the new big thing and all advertisers jumped on the band wagon with the promise of all the riches they could get from tying their ad to users on cellular devices and their computer. And you see so many ads today. You're so bombarded with ads, you tend to disregard all of them. You're absolutely lost in the clutter. It's kind of like how newspaper ads were back in the day when newspapers were super hot. There were so many ads in there, no one could possibly take note of anyone's ads. They're just too many. It's sensory overload. Another is that billboards can deliver one thing which online advertising cannot and never would nor can magazines or newspapers or anything, and that is the ability to actually direct traffic flow off of the highway or the road. To say the words, "Exit now," or to say the words, "Exit Number 99."
Because what you're doing is you're matching not only the product and the existence of the business, you're telling people geographically how to get there. Now of course, sure, you can have a TV ad and you can say, "Larry's Furniture, the corner of Fifth and Market," but that doesn't mean anything to the viewer. They don't know where Fifth and Market even is. But with a billboard, you can say, "Larry's Furniture. Exit now," and that's a very powerful force. Having the ability to actually direct customers to your business is a whole lot more powerful than just giving them some rough address, which they won't actually remember anyway. Also, when you have a billboard, you have control of that sign for 100% of the time, but when you advertise in many other sources, online sources, newspaper, radio, television, you only get a little tiny fraction of it.
Even if you ran an ad in the Super Bowl, think how crazy that was. 30 second ads were costing $7 million in the most recent Super Bowl. How do you really justify that? I'm not really sure, but how do you really justify any of those kinds of ads? You're just one of a million ads. People may not even be watching the TV at that time, may have wandered off, may have the sound off, not even looking. Is that as powerful as having something where you are out there 24 hours a day, seven days a week. And don't forget the concept of build. It's a marketing term, which means someone sees the same advertisement over and over and over, and what does it do? That build of seeing it in a repetitive fashion, makes you remember it more. You get that from billboards. You pass the same billboard every day of the year. 365 times, you see that sign that gets really ingrained into your thoughts, and that's a very powerful force that other advertising venues cannot match.
Also, of course, you have the fact that people keep perpetually learning better how to use the billboard tapestry, the vinyl, to put up good graphics, to make really good designs. I think you haven't seen as good a plethora of designs today as you have in the last 50 years. People have really advanced in the media. When I got in the business, all signs were hand-painted. You couldn't put a picture on them. If you did, it was called a pictorial. It was extremely expensive, and it didn't look like a picture. It just looked like a painting. Today though, people are really caught on to how to match the overall look of the sign, not only the words, but the images to help sell the product. And as a result, those ads are more effective today than they ever were probably in the past.
Also Americans are returning to the open road. They're returning to driving around. People are really enjoying getting out on the road again after a two-and-a-half year lockdown from COVID. And since people are back on the road, it only makes sense that billboards would be in vogue again because people are driving by them. Traffic counts are up, and more people are using things like hotels and those kinds of items, which have always been mainstays of the billboard industry. Finally, the fastest growing industry in America is fast food. And fast food just happens to be one of the largest users of the billboard advertising sector in the United States. Who's the number one largest billboard advertiser in America? That's right, it's McDonald's. But I also look at how many signs you see for RBs and Popeyes and Chick-fil-A, and the list is endless.
Fast food has become a giant part of the American landscape, a giant part of the American culture. Many people drive at least one meal every couple of days or even one meal every day from a fast food establishment, and fast food is one of the largest and has always been one of the largest users of billboards. Why is that? Because fast food is just that. It's about speed. And they know that when you're looking for lunch or looking for dinner or looking for breakfast, you want it right now, right? You don't wanna go to a restaurant and park your car and go in and sit down and not spend an hour. And the billboard tells you geographically where the food is. If it says, "Taco Bell, Exit Number Nine," and you're looking ahead and you see there's exit number nine, well, you're gonna pull off the road and go to Taco Bell.
So fast food has learned that there has always been a very symbiotic relationship between billboards and fast food because most Americans when they're looking to eat lunch or dinner and they're on the road, they're typically looking for signs to get there. And that goes back historically, back to the earliest days of the industry, back to the days when they first built the Interstate Highway System and you had Stuckey's, a very prominent advertiser. Stuckey's always had at least one billboard in each direction towards each restaurant because they knew how powerful it was to let people know there was food ahead and where to exit. The bottom line is, I haven't seen so much occupancy and demand in a long time, and it's certainly a welcome change.
I think that if you're looking at billboards out in suburban and extra-urban markets, out of the main core of the city, you'll see fewer vacant signs than you have seen in many, many years. And it's a very, very positive force. This is Frank Rolfe, the Billboard Mastery Podcast. Hope you enjoyed this. Talk to you again soon.