Cultivating a responsible image

Outdoor has long known the need for sensitivity when placing ads for such things as alcohol brands, and now technology is helping the industry fine-tune that social responsibility, says Jo-Anne Flack

It has been a long time coming, but it seems some disciplines within the marketing communications sector have developed a conscience.

With broadcast and print media, it was forced upon them through government regulations which initially banned tobacco advertising, and fast food and confectionery advertising around children’s TV has recently been banned in an attempt to tackle the growing problem of obesity among the young. Most recently, the Government has also been considering a watershed on alcohol TV advertising.

The outdoor and ambient sector, however, has been largely self-regulated.

Account director at media planning and buying agency MPG, Gavin Laseby, believes social responsibility has become an increasingly hot topic in the industry and is now on everyone’s radar. “It has been fuelled by issues such as child obesity and binge drinking. Some media, like TV, have always been heavily regulated and it could be argued that outdoor advertising has benefited from the regulation in terms of increased revenue.

“When tobacco advertising was banned on TV, there was certainly a cash benefit for outdoor. But the question is whether the market wants to take this money because another media sector has been banned from taking it. Is it responsible to take the cash? As an industry, do we want to be seen to be taking money because of another’s regulation?” asks Laseby.

This could indeed have been a taxing question for outdoor specialists, and cynics might argue that competing media sectors really care very little about how they come by their money. Fortunately for the outdoor sector, developments in digital technology saved it any embarrassment by providing a socially responsible solution.

The ability to provide day-part solutions to clients means that messages for certain brands can now be broadcast at particular times, which has the dual benefit of being more targeted as well as the message not being exposed to an inappropriate audience.

outdoor watershed

JC Decaux says digital technology enables outdoor advertisers to create a watershed of their own. For example, Belvedere Vodka ran a campaign after 9pm. And as only over 18s are allowed to bet, Partouch Betting ran an evening campaign on JC Decaux’s digital billboards that encouraged commuters on their way home to put bets on the European Championships. With odds changing all the time, the campaign had multiple messaging and time sensitive creative work.

Although it wasn’t an overwhelming desire to be socially responsible that prompted the outdoor sector’s development of this new technology, the issue has helped digital outdoor’s cause.

Says Laseby: “What these debates have done is create a demand for this technology and aided investment into it.”

But not all parts of the outdoor sector have had the same experience of self-regulation. Anything to do with public transport has always been closely examined.

As Nicky Cheshire, sales director of Alive, the digital division of CBS Outdoor, says: “Because the majority of our inventory is focused around public transport, we have always been conscious that the content has to be socially responsible. In terms of approval of copy that runs on the London Underground and on the buses, we don’t just observe industry regulation, we are also conscious of the broader range of people who are travelling. We have been socially aware for a while.

“Tobacco advertising, for example, was banned on public transport way before any other environments. We do carry alcohol advertising, but we also carry a responsible drinking message. We don’t promote drinking, but given that a great majority of the adult public does drink, we think it is about brand preferences.”

But Cheshire does admit that digital technology has introduced much more flexibility and has allowed certain brands to be much more focused.

“It means that we can talk to specific audiences more intelligently. I’m not saying that static posters can’t do a brilliant job, but if, for example, I’m advertising a cold beer, people will be much more open to that message in the evening than they would be first thing in the morning,” she says.

responsibility or roi?

But director of experiential marketing agency Hotcow, Sally Durcan, is not as convinced that social responsibility is all the talk in the outdoor industry.

“In my experience, social responsibility in relation to ‘might my message get into the wrong hands’ is not top of the agenda. Clients are interested in how and where to engage their audience, making sure the details of the campaign are legal and the activity will have a valuable return on investment.

“When paying for outdoor locations to run roadshows or events, each council has their own rules and regulations that are in place and that brands need to follow. Most brands know these restrictions and have to get creative in the way they communicate with different audiences. Guerrilla marketing is where these restrictions are removed as you are only limited by your imagination.

“Restrictions are already in place for brands doing outdoor face-to-face activity. For example, an alcoholic brand could not do any sampling in high street locations. But they can use other creative tactics to get their target audience to feel emotionally connected to the brand. I believe that brands need to think about the impact of how they communicate to certain age groups, and in fairness, most do. Those who have a controversial product to promote already restrict themselves based on other legal parameters.”

Of course, outdoor doesn’t just mean poster sites. And those campaigns which involve face-to-face contact with the public run much greater risk of getting it wrong.

In early July, the film Kung Fu Panda was in cinemas across the country. To help launch the film, Beatwax, part of the Picture Production Group, created the Kung Fu Panda Kontest – a two-day event which took place in 30 Tesco Extra stores. It included a dedicated Kung Fu Panda training zone positioned in the main entrance of the stores. Shoppers were entertained by a Kung Fu Panda expert who demonstrated stances, punches, kick and blocks while children got the chance to try out some Kung Fu moves with real martial arts experts.

Beatwax managing director Michael Brown says: “With any live event activity, we have to complete a risk assessment form provided by the partner, in this case Tesco. From that point onwards, any potential risk is the responsibility of Tesco, as long as we have not been negligent.”

the art of safety

In this case, Beatwax had to ensure that all the martial arts experts were CRB checked as they would be involved in one-on-one activity with children as young as five or six. The way the activity was set up, according to Brown, ensured there would never be a situation where two people could get into the ring and beat each other up.

When it comes to social responsibility, it has in fact been the outdoor sector that has taken the lead – particularly in the area of environmental challenges. Most of the major contractors have been championing the use of recyclable materials to reduce wastage as well as phasing out the use of paper and paste billboards.

Says Hotcow’s Durcan: “From a demographic perspective, the best way to be socially responsible is to be highly targeted in your advertising or non-conventional activity. Also, use media that communicates with audiences in a way they like. An 18- to 24-year-old urbanite who lives in Shoreditch and loves hanging out in up-and-coming music bars is going to be much more receptive to a message if it is communicated to them via something they perceive as cool or interesting. A large, traditional billboard may be noticed but is unlikely to be talked about. However, creating a large green graffiti display on that same billboard is likely to be picked up and in their values, considered cool.”

Yes, but is it encouraging graffiti? v©

Latest from Marketing Week


Access Marketing Week’s wealth of insight, analysis and opinion that will help you do your job better.

Register and receive the best content from the only UK title 100% dedicated to serving marketers' needs.

We’ll ask you just a few questions about what you do and where you work. The more we know about our visitors, the better and more relevant content we can provide for them. And, yes, knowing our audience better helps us find commercial partners too. Don't worry, we won't share your information with other parties, unless you give us permission to do so.

Register now


Our award winning editorial team (PPA Digital Brand of the Year) ask the big questions about the biggest issues on everything from strategy through to execution to help you navigate the fast moving modern marketing landscape.


From the opportunities and challenges of emerging technology to the need for greater effectiveness, from the challenge of measurement to building a marketing team fit for the future, we are your guide.


Information, inspiration and advice from the marketing world and beyond that will help you develop as a marketer and as a leader.

Having problems?

Contact us on +44 (0)20 7292 3703 or email

If you are looking for our Jobs site, please click here