Semiotics

How outdoor gives meaning to brands

On September 18th, Truth’s Tim Spencer presented our semiotic research paper on the cultural relevance of outdoor advertising at the British Museum for the #OutdoorWorks media conference. You can read about our presentation in a special feature in Marketing Week, out today.

Our presentation was the culmination of a six week research and analysis programme commissioned by The Outdoor Media Centre. The purpose of the project was to understand the cultural significance of outdoor media and to discover whether Out Of Home (OOH) still has a valid role in visual branding as the cultural landscape evolves.

A broad range of methods was utilised, including site visits to sixteen locations nationwide and expert interviews with creative directors, an urban environment theorist and a cultural geographer. Alongside this, on-street intercepts were conducted with the public; environments and behaviours were recorded photographically and via time-lapse videos; and desk-based research with analysis of the history of poster art and contemporary poster advertising provided a framework.

Semiotics often uncovers subtle shifts in general culture that reveal a great deal about the way our perceptions evolve and change. These insights can make a big difference to a project. Our research revealed just such a change, providing a key insight into the increasing importance of OOH. We’re emerging from a long period of digital enchantment, where we sought to do an endless list of things via the convenience of digital: documenting and publishing our lives with image and video, and our thoughts via blogs and tweets; conducting business; socialising; receiving entertainment, education and enlightenment; reading; watching movies and TV; and generally participating in popular culture. All of these things migrated to the screen. At the same time online became mobile, so that now we increasingly do all of these things on small portable rectangles – not truly engaging with material culture, but observing it through a glass window.

As a society we are now re-evaluating the value of real, tangible, physical things. The value of real is increasing once more as our enchantment with pixels wanes. There was a time when OOH advertising was a contentious issue: people were concerned about visual pollution and brand domination of public space. Our public intercepts revealed these concerns are now residual, as our focus shifts towards the invasive nature of online advertising.

Online will always be there, but it’s no longer the ultimate destination: it’s the means of exchange between people and things. OOH is the vital first base in consumer/brand engagement, and the only reliable means of projecting brand authenticity at an unmissable scale in the platforms of our real lives. It provides us with the signage that helps us to make choices and can do so with creative energy, vitality and colour, making it easy to absorb. Advertising is a crucial element of our urban landscape. When you take advertising away from urban landscapes, they become unfamiliar and unemotional non-spaces that we can’t relate to. They feel ominous and ‘unpublic’ and stripped of cultural energy.

When brands play in these spaces they add the crucial top layer of cultural signage, bringing lightness and engagement via amusement, puzzlement, provocation and enchantment. In doing so, they add a layer of material that we absorb without functional interruption through low involvement processing. The presence of artwork enriches our daily journeys in functional urban spaces, providing us with a constantly changing overlay of stimulus. In this sense OOH is like vitamin D: it is the energising component we absorb naturally at the cultural intersection between people, brands and urban environments.

Talk to Tim Spencer about semiotics and how it can illuminate the road ahead for your business: timothy.spencer@truth.ms