What does the billboard movie tell us about today’s billboards?

Digital billboard in Sylva, North Carolina

Movies about media are older than Citizen Kane. And now, the out of home medium gets its turn on the big screen, in an award-winning title role (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, written and directed by London-born Martin McDonagh).

From New York’s Times Square to tiny Sylva, North Carolina—- where “Three Billboards” was filmed – billboards are cheerleading for the billboard movie. Hip, say-it-loud promotion reveals key modern attributes about this oldest form of mass media:

Speed

Old-style billboards used in the period-piece “Three Billboards” movie were printed on paper. Family-owned Allison Outdoor Advertising in Sylva custom-made the wood-pole signs, and installed them in a cow pasture in western North Carolina.

During the movie-awards season, when Allison Outdoor cheered the billboard film, its message displayed on high-tech electronic (digital) billboards (no paper, glue, or production time/expense). Before the Golden Globes show on January 7, the billboard message in Sylva and elsewhere said: THIS BILLBOARD DESERVES AN AWARD.

Afterwards, the message changed quickly to: FOUR GOLDEN GLOBES OUTSIDE HOLLYWOOD.

Creativity (that gets attention)

The lure of big-canvas art design attracts top talent to out of home media. The industry’s mini-campaign to applaud the billboard movie was created by award-winning design agency Extra Credit Projects in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Promotional copy was inspired by the simple, all-caps graphics used in the film.

Creates buzz/hits the target

The out of home medium is one-to-many, driving/complementing other media including social.

Billboards also can be targeted. In “Three Billboards,” the advertiser (grieving mother played by Frances McDormand) aims her message at Police Chief Willoughby (played by Woody Harrelson), putting his name on a billboard. The movie is a case study in one-to-one targeting.

Like others, we in the billboard business scratched our heads when we first heard about a feature-length film starring billboards.

In Missouri, billboard operators were surprised to learn that the billboard movie was not filmed in Missouri. One threatened to complain to the Missouri Film Office.

Don’t worry about Missouri. American Idol filmed in Kansas City and Branson, as well as TV’s Cops in Springfield, and more.

As states compete aggressively for TV and movie production, North Carolina was quite pleased that McDonagh shot his billboard movie there, even though the state’s tax credit for movie-making expired at the end of 2014.

“Three Billboards” spent more than $12 million in North Carolina, according to the state’s Film Office. Some of that budget went to Associated Posters, Inc (API) in Kernersville, North Carolina, for printing the distinctive black-on-red paper.

In Sylva, North Carolina, which served as the fictional Ebbing, Missouri, in the movie, Gary Ayers at the hometown billboard company says “we made good money.” Yes, we are a bit transactional. Our persona is built on sales, and proudly so.

That trait is not new. If there is something new about billboard hype for an Oscar-nominated billboard movie, it would be the latest proof that vestiges of our long-ago bunker mentality are gone.

In New York, Outfront Media chief marketing officer Jodi Senese posted that “Three Billboards” bested the old Burma Shave signs as the top sequential billboard campaign.

In Los Angeles, Rick Robinson of the Billups ad agency saw “Three Billboards” and published on Linkedin about out of home media as “cultural currency.” Days later, the Los Angeles Times reported that protest marchers nationwide used symbols from film (“Star Wars” and “Three Billboards”) and TV (“The Handmaid’s Tale”) to express views on President Trump. In New York, marchers carried three billboards mimicking the all-caps thick black typeface used in the “Three Billboards” movie.

And, back in small-town Sylva in the Carolina mountains, Allison Outdoor Advertising has a new message on its high-tech billboards: THIS BILLBOARD DESERVES AN OSCAR.

On March 4, ABC airs the Academy Awards show in primetime. Allison Outdoor and its billboard peers are ready to change the message – quickly -- to display a shout out for Oscar winners.

I cannot predict the Oscar outcome. But I am confident that Nancy Boyle’s conclusion was correct after she saw the billboard rooting for the billboard movie: “Billboards have come a long way.”

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