The 10 Commandments of Outdoor Advertising

The commandments within assure a firm foundation when designing a billboard. It’s up to you to decide what your message is and the concept that will deliver it, but if you follow these guidelines, you’ll be a lot better off than 70% of outdoor advertisers.

1 Thou shalt not use more than 7 words.

This is hard, I know. But not a single driver in the world will be able to read much more. Even if the billboard is at a stop light, people won’t even want to read it if you have more copy than this.

2 Thou shalt not use irrelevant images.

Your dog doesn’t belong on a billboard just because you think he’s cute. Only use images that help set a tone or illustrate your concept. And unless there’s a really good reason, you don’t need to be on a billboard. I’m not going to choose you as my real estate agent just because I saw your face 14′ tall.

Yes, your dog is adorable, but it’s not relevant to your message. Not that you really have a message here anyway.

3 Thou shalt not use bright crazy colors inappropriately.

These colors have their place in some ads, but more often than not, they’re misused. As if pure yellow backgrounds are really going to make people look. Ads get attention because they’re based on a solid strategy and well-designed, not because you use bright colors. In fact, relying on obnoxious colors can damage your image and make you look like a sleazy used car salesman.

Big gawdy letters in all caps on a bright yellow background. What about this could possibly make me trust them to perform cosmetic surgery? Replace the woman with a car, and you’ve got a great used car dealer ad..

4 Thou shalt not use more than one point of contact.

If your ad includes a phone number, street address, directions to your location and a website, you have three too many points of contact. Some might even say four too many. If you make a great ad, people will seek out your business.

5 Thou shalt not use starbursts.

They make you look cheap. If what you put in this starburst is that important, it should be the main message on your billboard.

6 Thou shalt not use system fonts.

Stop using Arial, Impact and Times. There are much better fonts that are far more readable. The general public probably can’t articulate this, but using these fonts makes your ad look generic and hurts your credibility. Just try something with a little personality. Making any font ultra-bold condensed and italic does not qualify as personality. If it came with your computer when you bought it, it’s probably a good idea to not use it.

25 Words. Directional. Phone number. System fonts. Nothing about this makes an effective billboard.

7 Thou shalt not always include a call to action.

Not every ad needs this. It’s just a buzzword that some marketers made up so they could sound like they knew what they were talking about. Your entire billboard is a call to action whether that action is to buy something, turn at the next light, find more information, join a group , get excited, generate buzz or simply be aware that the brand exists. None of these actions are taken simply because you told people to do so. As long as your billboard creates some sort of emotional response, viewers will decide what action they want to take. If you don’t create an emotional response, they won’t take any action at all. Adding “call now” just tells viewers that you think they’re stupid and have no idea what to do.

8 Thou shalt not ignore thy audience.

Take care to know who you’re speaking to, and speak to them in the right tone. Your target audience is not everybody. Narrow your focus and you’ll make more sales. The best analogy is a shotgun versus a sniper rifle. With a shotgun you spread your chances of making a kill. But the sniper rifle guarantees it.

9 Thou shalt not rip off national advertising campaigns.

Mastercard’s Priceless campaign and the California Milk Processors Board’s Got Milk? campaign are fantastic and ridiculously effective. Copying them won’t be as effective for you. Sure, people might chuckle at first, but they’ll forget you pretty quickly. Doing this is no way to build your brand. So stop doing this. Just stop. Now.

This needs to stop. Most people don’t even know why they’re using it. What does “Got Crime?” even mean?

10 Thou shalt break the rules.

Once you’ve mastered the rules, you can break them if you have a very deliberate purpose rooted in a strong concept. If your concept just wouldn’t work without breaking a rule, then you’ve probably got an award-winning billboard on your hands.

Don’t just bend the rules. Break the hell out of them and then stuff them into a wood chipper. But have a strong concept to back up your reasoning.

We had a few more to add but wanted to keep it to ten because “14 Commandments” just doesn’t have the same ring to it. Think we left off something really important? Have a pet peeve you want to get off your chest? Put in your two cents on the worst billboard mistakes in the comments.

28 thoughts on “The 10 Commandments of Outdoor Advertising

  1. Mrankin

    Halleluiah and Amen…

    January 25, 2011 at 3:44 pm
  2. Sigmond Allen

    Ugh. we have a Lamer Outdoor in our market and they’re always putting up crap creative. I have been out of the biz for about 10 years, but i stilllove seeing great creative solutions for outdoor… and i cringe at the bad stuff.

    January 26, 2011 at 4:19 am
    1. You should feel free to tell the advertisers they can do better. Point them to this site to see the cool things that are possible. We try to focus on local and small agency creative so the smaller clients see that there’s opportunity for them to do great outdoor, not just for the mega-corporations with big agencies. The little guy deserves great creative as much as the big guys.

      January 26, 2011 at 4:44 am
      1. hey Todd! i work for CBS Outdoor and i just want to say how much we LOVE the blog! i keep sending out ideas from it to our sales and marketing force – anytime we can improve the creative, we are helping the industry… THANKS and KUDOS!

        February 8, 2011 at 2:56 pm
    2. Cinbetsch

      just curious, what market are you seeing this crap creative in?

      January 28, 2011 at 4:21 pm
    3. Josh McKoy

      By Lamer you mean LAMAR? there’s nothing lame about Lamar… we have the most signs in the country!!!

      February 1, 2011 at 12:19 am
      1. Don Wright

        josh, bigger is not always better

        June 23, 2011 at 8:32 pm
    4. Sam

      @Sigmond Allen. As a rep for Lamar (not Lamer), I assure you we strive to post the most creative eye-catching messages our clients will approve. Sometimes advertisers don’t heed our advice and end up posting ads that miss the mark. Occasionally the creative is provided to us by the client with no collaboration. I just wanted to refute your claim that we always “put up crap”. Please check the OBIE winners list each year and you’ll see we honestly have a passion for great creative outdoor. Thanks and Go Outdoor!

      December 13, 2013 at 12:41 pm
  3. Mike

    This is getting printed and posted on the door of my art department. Many thanks. 🙂

    Mike Johnson
    Clear Channel Outdoor

    January 26, 2011 at 3:23 pm
    1. That’s awesome, Mike. Stay tuned. We have plans to create some badass posters of the 10 Commandments.

      January 26, 2011 at 3:47 pm
    2. LR

      Mine too! … Lynn in Ocala 🙂

      January 26, 2011 at 3:57 pm
  4. Amen, Amen and AMEN…

    Wrote about this very topic not long ago myself…

    January 26, 2011 at 4:29 pm
  5. Raul Villa

    LMAO @ Sigmond… “LAMER”

    January 28, 2011 at 3:51 pm
  6. Raul Villa

    You guys should make PDF 1-sheets of all of these.

    January 31, 2011 at 9:35 pm
    1. We’re working on designing and printing vinyl posters. Keep checking back. We should have it all firmed up this week.

      January 31, 2011 at 9:37 pm
      1. Raul villa

        by one sheets i meant 8.5x11or the sales kits!

        February 1, 2011 at 12:16 am
        1. Why give a client an 8.5×11 when you can give them a 5′ wide poster? I’m just being facetious really. We’ll do some one-sheeters, too.

          January 31, 2011 at 7:41 pm
  7. […] The best use (but not the only use) is brand building. Because outdoor advertising is a mass reach medium with high frequency, you can use billboards to build awareness and understanding of your brand over time. For more on creating compelling billboard copy, see The 10 Commandments of Outdoor Advertising. […]

    August 3, 2011 at 4:59 pm
  8. […] in mind I’ve added a link to some great tips and rules to follow when creating an advert, click here for the tips, and don’t forget you can always call us on 0845 203 2727 for some […]

    December 6, 2011 at 1:27 pm
  9. […] added a link to some great tips and rules to follow when creating an advert, the tips/ rules are The 10 Commandments for Outdoor Advertising from (don’t worry about the title (outdoor advertising) – these tips […]

    December 9, 2011 at 9:38 am
  10. Overall I think this is very helpful. I’m about to start a new outdoor advertising campaign of my own and will incorporate several of these. But a few points left me scratching my head…
    #3 Since when is yellow a ‘crazy’ color? I understand a successful billboard is based on a ‘solid strategy’, but no one will know it unless they take notice of it first. I’m not going to refuse to do business with someone because they used the color yellow.
    #4 I think this rule applies most of the time but with a large billboard on an Interstate I do not think it does. When you are in unfamiliar territory but think you might want to visit an establishment, often the deciding factor is ‘Do you have reliable information to get there? Or, are you just going to be driving around aimlessly looking for it? You can pull over and write info down if it is important to you.
    #6 Depends…I get it, certain fonts are over-used…on the other hand weird, unfamiliar fonts can throw people off or send the wrong msg…It really depends on your product & target audience.
    #9 Advertising slogans can work just as well for you as they do for someone else. As un-creative as a ‘Got Crime?’ slogan is for a political candidate to ‘creative-types’, that is no basis to say it doesn’t work. And by the way, EVERYBODY knows what ‘Got Crime?’ means.
    Thanks overall for the information. I look forward to reading the other 4.

    January 22, 2014 at 7:44 am
  11. I believe Commandment #8 is the entire holy book. There is one sole purpose of an ad: bring in Returns of Investment. Everything else like creative brilliance, readability, etc. are ways of doing so. I am not undermining their importance but they are the means to an end, which is sales. If my ad can convince my target audience to buy, it doesn’t matter to me how it did so. I would term it a successful and brilliant ad.

    January 30, 2014 at 11:56 pm
  12. Iris Sabrina

    Hi, Todd! I work for Clear Channel Outdoor and I’m pretty sure you listed everything we fight against on a daily basis. I wish I could get away with sending clients this list. It might save some serious aggravation in the long run…or just get me fired. Seriously, though. Thank you for posting. You nailed it.

    March 3, 2014 at 11:10 am
  13. Ramsey

    I’m organizing a team that’s putting together a billboard and I don’t know much about design but I knew the concepts that the designer put together were NOT right! I just didn’t know how to express what wasn’t right, but I knew there were things that just didn’t look right and made everything look cheap and non-credible!! This article put all my thoughts about what “wasn’t right” into words and clear points! Thank You for posting this! p.s. the final ad turned out to be steller!

    April 17, 2014 at 10:20 am
  14. What WORKS is the only rule. Any dark text on any light background using any huge font is the best for getting your message across. At 65 miles per hour, with the radio on, while texting, there is no point to using a stylish font if you loose even one additional viewer. How many fonts do cell phones use? How many does a book use? The viewer has 2 seconds. If the words are common, more is fine. Use whatever images get your intended points across. Usually the points are…. Second one – “This is what we (brand is good here) offer!” Second two- “THIS is how you should react to our offer, very, very, very soon.”
    Your message will be lost to time in the next 2 seconds. It had better be compelling enough to make it 5 more seconds. Always have your reaction planned. This is what you are spending the customers money on….the reaction. It had better be planned. If you don’t get your money’s worth of your “planned response” then you have broken the only rule….”What Works.”

    March 9, 2015 at 4:55 am
  15. Awesome! Excited to do our first billboard. Great info!,

    April 5, 2016 at 7:41 pm
  16. You should feel free to tell the Blogging Tutorial they can do better. Point them to this site to see the cool things that are possible.

    June 5, 2016 at 5:14 am
  17. Billboard is really an effective way of marketing — it gives impact and drama to the consumers. Plus, it you cannot turn it off. Thus, people can really the whole picture of it.

    Especially, if you use the digital billboard which is the “in” thing today.

    December 28, 2016 at 3:11 am

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Todd Turner

Todd Turner has been an art director at Adams Outdoor Advertising in Charleston, SC since 2004. He has created award-winning campaigns for large brands like McDonald’s, Bojangle’s and Harley-Davidson but has spent most of his career working with small local businesses to create advertising that actually works.

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