Why many bus shelter ads are a waste of money

One of the greatest lessons of my time in TV came one day sitting in a large editing suite used to make commercials.

I’d been in and out of the place for years but one day noticed something that struck me as incredibly odd.

Despite the millions of dollars worth of hi-tech gear, in the preview room, where the editor and clients sat around to view the finished product, was a small television screen – pretty much the standard size you’d find in most lounge rooms.

I remember turning to ask the Director: "Why do we have such a crappy TV in this room – it is the size of a postage stamp compared to everything else – why don't we have a giant screen?  Even as the words were leaving my mouth, my brain caught up: Yes, the TV commercials were made in a high tech studio but where they had to do their work was on the standard suburban telly sitting in any of a million lounge rooms.  In those days, we used to joke about the number of mums and dads whose television sets produced dodgy colours, buzzing sound and flickering interference.  In other words, a piece of artistic and technical wizardry would ultimately have to prove its worth on a Rank Arena that was a televisual disaster zone.

Now, of course, in these days of plasma and super-dooper HDTV – the quality of TV reception is much higher.  But in those days, it was estimated that a high percentage of the viewing population did not know how to properly set the colour and contrast controls on their TV.  So, as much as you might be sweating over the quality of colour tones, your Mum sitting at home couldn’t tell the difference anyway!

So what does all this have to do with those bus shelter ad shells?  Quite simply the same principle applies.  I find up to 50% of them are unreadable as I drive past in my car.  So what’s the point?  Yes, there are the few dozen people who catch the bus – but surely we are not going to appeal to them only and ignore the 10,000 cars driving past every day?

So why do ad agencies insist on creating bus shelter ad shells with tiny words and complex images that simply cannot be read unless you are standing 1 metre away with 30 seconds to stare?

In my book, that’s the heart of the problem.  These ad shells are being designed by a designer sitting in an air-conditioned studio on a giant screen in front of their face.  That’s not the way to determine if the sign will work.  Here’s a tip for anyone about to rollout a campaign including ad shells.  Minimise the words, make the images bold and clear … and when you view the creative, imagine yourself in a car doing 80kms down the freeway and do the readability test.  Without that, you’re probably just wasting your money.