New research promotes outdoor advertising, here’s why we should all be worried

New research from inside the advertising industry links outdoor advertising to increased sales, with potential consequences for us all. 

The research looked at people’s online searches for one week and found that the presence of outdoor adverts like billboards makes people more likely to search for the products and shops they see advertised. 

Those extra searches turn into more purchases. In fact, the research suggests outdoor advertising can increase purchases by 38%, great news for big outdoor advertisers like Clear Channel, Global, Posterscope and JC Decaux, who all collaborated on the research.

Good for advertisers, bad for everyone else

Tying outdoor ads to increased online searches is music to the ears of advertisers and big companies hoping to boost their sales. 

The bad news for everyone else is that if demand for outdoor advertising rises, ad companies will want to put up more billboards and digital screens. 

Last year BT applied for planning permission to install dozens of two-metre tall digital screens in towns and cities across the UK, adding to the hundreds already in place

These screens are often unwelcomed by local communities, and have previously been refused by some councils for promoting anti-social behaviour and crime, and creating street clutter and pedestrian congestion.

They are also a disaster for the environment. One single “6-sheet” digital screen – like the kind found in bus shelters – can consume as much energy as 3 average UK homes

Larger digital billboards can use as much energy as 11 UK homes. During an energy crisis and a climate crisis, do we really need such wasteful use of electricity?

A large digital screen on a pavement outside some shops.
An outdoor digital screen.

Preying on our worst instincts

A worrying aspect of the research is that it notes that people are more impulsive when they are out of home and encourages advertisers to utilise this fact. 

In a press release announcing the research Chris Forrester, director of commercial for outdoor at Global, said the research “will arm marketeers, media planners and brands with evidence-based research that demonstrates both the effectiveness of outdoor media, and how it can be optimised to drive audience behaviour.” (emphasis added.)

This risks playing to the worst aspects of modern corporate advertising, which is founded on the manipulation of insecurities and desires.

Adverts today are not looking to inform us about a product as much as they are trying to shape our feelings about what it means to be successful, trendy, accepted, beautiful, happy and how we should enjoy ourselves.

Exposure to the kind of idealised lifestyles depicted in advertising is detrimental to our self-worth, psychological wellbeing and body image

Sexism has long been a standard trope of advertising. When used in outdoor advertising, ads that prey on body image can gender stereotypes and inequalities, contributing to unsafe and unwelcoming environments for women and LGBTQ+ people. 

Looking ahead

According to the research, people’s location, the weather and even sights, sounds and smells can all influence how someone interacts with an advert. 

Looking to the future, this all gets very Bladerunner. Online ads are already highly targeted at the viewer thanks to behind-the-scenes algorithms. 

As outdoor advertisers attempt to copy this, we stray into the murky realm of surveillance advertising. 

The use of surveillance technology in ad screens to profile passers-by and show them targeted ads has long been a reality in Japan. This new research may help boost calls for more surveillance advertising here, too. 

A report published in 2022 by Big Brother Watch found that behind ads screens lies a complex web of data collection and selling. 

Tracking tools, present on almost all smart phones, allow advertisers to capture, hold and use your data. Combined with GPS data ad companies can predict what kinds of people will be present at a given location at any given time and tailor ads to those people. 

How we can fight back

Adverts in public space should not have the power to track us and determine what we see and how we feel. 

Adfree Cities is determined to stop the flood of corporate advertising that threatens to drown our public spaces. 

Our response to the recent government consultation on planning reform made clear that we think local people should have the final say in whether their spaces are given over to corporate power or kept in community hands.

If you’d like to get involved in this work, you can find a local Adblock group here. Can’t find one? Start your ownVisit our website for even more ways to get involved and to learn more about the need for ad-free cities.

Published by