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A billboard showing George Clooney, star of The American, is seen at the corner of Queen Street West and Peter Street in downtown Toronto.

Fred Lum/Fred Lum/The Globe and Mail

Head to Toronto if you want to spot George Clooney.

But even if the Hollywood star does turn up for the Toronto International Film Festival, you'll likely have to settle for a glimpse of him at the corner of Queen and Peter streets, where you'll see his image on the side of a building advertising his latest flick, The American.

Billboards date back to the 1800s, but they're still going strong, both as a medium for a slew of advertisers ranging from film studios to telecommunication giants to financial corporations, and as a revenue generator for building owners.

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In fact, advertisers in Canada spent close to half a billion dollars on out-of-home advertising (ads that are consumed when people are not at home, including billboards, transit advertising and street furniture) in 2009. Their U.S. counterparts spent about $6-billion.

Frank Mendicino, senior vice-president of marketing at Alliance Films, which is releasing The American, says he spends 25 per cent to 40 per cent of his ad budgets on out-of-home advertising in the summer months, when Canadians are out and about and watching less TV.

But simply owning property isn't the only prerequisite for erecting a revenue-generating billboard, says Paul Seaman, vice-president of real estate at Contact Clear Channel Outdoor. Location is paramount.

"Generally speaking, if you have a commercial building in a high traffic area with substantially sized legal signage, the revenue potential is quite beneficial," he says. "But if you've got a strip mall up a back road in the 'burbs, it's probably not worth looking at."

Location is key for most advertisers, who often seek the attention of a specific demographic.

"We spend a lot of time working with Alliance deciding who we need to target for a particular film," says Annette Warring, chief executive officer of Vizeum Canada, Alliance Films' advertising agency. "There's a lot of sophisticated demographic data to help us choose the right location."

Aside from zeroing in on a specific age group, for instance, billboard advertisers are also looking for unobstructed spaces that are highly visible to both pedestrian and vehicular traffic, without being crowded by other ads.

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Billboards that possess these criteria will earn building owners top dollar. Just how much a billboard can bring in, however, depends on such factors as precise location and how many other ads are visible in the space.

Proximity of ads is just one zoning issue that can determine where billboards can be erected, says Randy Otto, president of outdoor advertising giant Pattison.

Ensuring billboards comply to municipal bylaws is the responsibility of the outdoor advertising company, whose role it also is to negotiate lease agreements for billboards with landowners and then sell that advertising inventory to advertisers or their agencies.

"The best way for the landowner to handle zoning issues is to contact an outdoor company and they'll determine whether or not it is permissible," he says.

Technology has transformed billboards in a number of ways. Digital boards have LCD screens, allowing a rotation of ads, rather than static printed vinyl. But zoning restrictions and expensive infrastructure make them less widespread than they could be, says Mr. Otto. "There is resistance because the initial wave of the digital billboard was more of a video panel trying to run a 15-second video, so there was a perception they were distracting to vehicles," he says.

Most digital billboards, however, simply rotate through static ads every 15 seconds or so without any animation. Margaret Burnside, vice-president of marketing at Alliance, likes digital billboards for this very reason.

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"As we get closer to a theatre opening, we can change that creative up so eyeballs viewing it will see something new and different every time," she says, adding that live data can even be streamed into ads on digital billboards. These signs can cost advertisers as much as four times the price of traditional billboards, however.

Digital displays may not outnumber traditional billboards yet, but what every billboard can do today is push people to a website for an experience that does rely on technology. "We want to drive people to the Web, where the intention is to get them to interact with the content and engage in the movie by doing things like watching the trailer," says Ms. Warring.

Digitalization is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to technology, says Nick Barbuto, vice-president of digital solutions at advertising agency Cossette.

"Historically we've seen billboards on the sides of buildings, but now we're seeing things like ads on retailer windows at nighttime via projections," he says, citing a Cadbury Caramilk ad that used this technology.

Nighttime projections can work in storefronts that are vacant or, for instance, a gym could use its facade to advertise a related product, like a health food item.

Other innovations include the use of audio. Mr. Barbuto points to a 2007 billboard ad for Paranormal State, a ghost-themed television show. The ad used directional audio that aimed a chilling sound at passers-by.

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Then there are camera-equipped digital billboards that can collect demographic data, such as sex and age group. "It's just amazing," he says.

"But like the Internet in its early days, this technology will scare people at first. A line will be established on what's kosher and what's not."

Top 10 out-of-home advertisers in Canada in 2009

  1. Telus Corp.
  2. BCE Corp.
  3. McDonald's Corp.
  4. Molson Coors Brewing Co.
  5. Tim Hortons Inc.
  6. Rogers Communications Inc.
  7. Government of Canada
  8. Provincial government lotteries
  9. Labatt Breweries of Canada
  10. Astral Media Inc.

Top 10 in the U.S.:

  1. Verizon
  2. McDonald's Corp.
  3. AT&T Corp.
  4. Geico
  5. Warner Bros Pictures
  6. Coca-Cola Co.
  7. PepsiCo. Inc.
  8. State Farm Life Insurance Co.
  9. Apple Inc.
  10. MetroPCS Wireless Inc.

Sources: Nielsen Media Research, Outdoor Advertising Association of America

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