Whether it is Piccadilly Circus in London, New York’s Times Square or Tokyo’s Ginza, neon billboards in the heart of a big city are no ordinary advertising spots – they are part of a city’s identity. Which means that when they change, it is big news, and not just in the advertising world.
Last week Korean carmaker Hyundai announced it would be taking over Sanyo’s spot in Piccadilly Circus, becoming the first new brand to put a sign there for 17 years. The Sanyo sign has been there since the 1970s and the move is regarded as an end of an era. Moreover, it is also proof of how rarely iconic advertising spots like this become available to the open market. The deal with site owner Land Securities will reportedly cost nearly €2m a year – money well spent given that Piccadilly is one of the world’s most famous advertising locations. Rarely a single film about London makes it to the final edit without at least one establishing shot of the bright lights of Piccadilly Circus.
“Brands choose spots like this because of the winning combination of high contact frequency and impact,” says Fred Kuhlman founding partner of consultancy City Outdoor Advisors. “Choosing a high-profile spot for your ad is mostly an emotional choice. The high fee doesn’t necessary guarantee a high revenue return, but it raises brand awareness, and affirms a company’s name on the market. For brands able to snatch famous advertising spots, this is also a proof of their financial wellness.”
Or turmoil, as was in the case for GM. In late 2009, as part of its bankruptcy arrangements, the US car giant turned the lights off on its Times Square hoardings after almost 70 years. The company had been advertising there since the 1930s and the Chevrolet clock, installed in 2007, had become one of the most photographed spots in the Square.
Advertising posters, even in an uncertain financial climate, are a reliable revenue source for cities. But not every city thinks plastering the streets with advertising is worth the money. In 2006 São Paulo said não to all outdoor advertising. Right-wing mayor Gilberto Kassab passed the “Clean City” law banning all 8,000 billboard sites. There are no posters, no ads on buses or cabs but it cost the city an estimated €92m in lost advertising.
It’s not a strategy that advertising executives would like to see replicated elsewhere, but at least it displays something they would admire: originality.