Billboard Culture

Billboards determine the image of a city. Their creative messages are a tribute to modern times. But sometimes they can be too intrusive. This led to a political discussion about scaffold advertising in the Amsterdam city centre and a mysterious billboard along the A4 at Leiderdorp. And the revealing mega-ads for lingerie brand Sapph came under heavy fire. But many billboards are striking, original and witty: urban design that, just for a moment, turns the world on its head.

Danger ahead

Arresting images on roadside billboards are too distracting for motorists. For this reason, Minister of Infrastructure Melanie Schulz van Hagen wants to ban them. She said that last spring following the appearance of a mysterious billboard next to the A4 at Leiderdorp. The advertisement contained a QR code. By scanning the two-dimensional bar code with a smartphone, the user can get additional information about the product being advertised. In the Netherlands, holding a telephone while driving is prohibited. The Department of Public Works states that things which are not relevant to the task of driving are only allowed to hold the driver's attention for two seconds.

Billboards in the Big Apple

Although there's been a fuss about billboards in this country in recent years, the Netherlands is a small player in the field. In New York City the 'billboard culture' goes a lot further. And they don't have a problem with QR codes. Take a look.

Dress less to impress

In 2009, the Advertising Code Commission received many complaints about billboards advertising lingerie brand Sapph. Some people complained that the life-size images of nearly-naked women were unrealistic. The women were depicted as 'mutilated'. Photoshop was used to make the models even slimmer than they really were. Sapph responded to the accusations laconically, saying, "We only make the women more beautiful, just like they do themselves with makeup." Our use of a not too realistic image gives the campaign some humour. It is not our intention to hurt people." The Advertising Code Commision has dismissed the complaints.

Balding Billboard

Londoner Matt Stafford finds the silver lining. He suffers from alopecia, but is able to put a positive spin on his problem by using eBay to offer his bald spot for advertising purposes. For £215 he will tattoo a temporary logo on his head, which he will walk around with for two weeks. The proceeds go to the Little Princess Trust. This is a foundation that provides wigs to children who are suffering hair loss due to cancer treatment. Want to know whether Matt Stafford's scheme is working? Listen to this interview on BBC radio, or follow him at

Too dominant

Next spring there will be fewer scaffolding advertisements decorating inner-city Amsterdam. The local district council has responded to UNESCO's request to keep scaffold advertising out of the heart of the city. UNESCO believes that the ads are too intrusive for the city centre. The mega-canvases will still be permitted in the parts of the centre which are not classified as World Heritage Sites. The other major Dutch cities are also expected to limit scaffold advertising.

Fighting AIDS

What is the power of billboards? Do they cause people to change their behaviour? The AIDS campaign LoveLife in South Africa shows that this is an illusion.
Around the turn of the millennium, the LoveLife organisation launched an unorthodox anti-AIDS campaign. The South African billboards had a very direct message to young people: If you love your life, do something about AIDS. Cost: $130 million over five years. In 2005 the campaign was very thoroughly analysed. Despite the billboards, helplines and youth centers, the number of young people with AIDS - about ten percent of teenagers - had not decreased. Preventing AIDS is still a real struggle.

Try it!

How do you give people a call to action and make them familiar with your product? These billboards by Granatapet and Thorntons Chocolate manage to tempt both dogs and their owners.

Talking points

Billboards get a lot of people talking. And of course this is precisely what advertisers want. Three highlights.
- Grass Cutter billboard for Big Razors in Japan
- Coop's Paints advertises in Columbus
- Formula Toothpaste advertising in Jakarta

Guerrilla billboard