The recent outburst by Subrata Mukherjee, the Mayor of Kolkata, against hoardings from the airport to the city would raise questions about the prospects of outdoor advertising, especially hoardings. Mukherjee feels that the sight of innumerable hoardings around the airport and the road leading to the city presents a negative impression to any visitor, and works against Kolkata’s image. He would rather have them all removed.
So, is there any merit in the threat or should it be ignored? The consensus among advertising professionals is, to quote Accord Director Sudeep Ganguly, “The Kolkata Municipal Corporation needs us as much as we do them.” This is as succinct as one could get.
On a rough estimate, if each single hoarding is taken into account, the lowest amount to be paid is in the range of Rs 20,000 to Rs 40,000. With advertisement taxes, license fees and the like having been hiked by nearly 300 per cent, the Corporation earns more than Rs One crore a month.
“They need the revenue, and this is a legitimate way of earning it,” Selvel Managing Director Noomi Mehta and Sudeep Ganguly state. Hence, neither advertisers, outdoor advertising companies nor media planners see any reason to expect a ban on hoardings per se.
Rather, is there a vested interest in the Mayor’s diatribe against hoardings? Outdoor Advertising Professionals (OAP) Manager Ranjeet Banerjee states, “The road from the airport to the city comes under the jurisdiction of the Public Works Department (PWD) while the EM Bypass is under the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA). It is only the eastern wetlands and the city area that come under the Mayor’s jurisdiction. If he is so concerned about the city’s image, then why doesn’t he limit the number of sites being allotted in the business district? If he is talking of visual obstruction, then why have so many sites been allotted this year on the pavements in the central business district of Dalhousie? Doesn’t this amount to physical obstruction of the human traffic?”
They also see no logic in removing hoardings from major traffic intersections. “That is exactly the point in putting up a hoarding. It has to be a strategic location, just so that it is noticed. An advertisement put up for a month may be ignored for the first time, or the second time. But it has to be noticed the 10th or 15th time a motorist, pedestrian or bus commuter passes by,” says Sudeep Ganguly.
What about when an obscene ad causes accidents, and is blamed by the Traffic Police for careless driving? “I do not buy that argument,” Ganguly and Mehta exclaim in unison.
“We have had studies conducted in both Delhi and Kolkata to probe into such charges. And no correlation was found between the two. In fact, a study conducted abroad found that hoardings on highways prevent accidents by creating visual excitement and keeping motorists alert. Or else, the monotony of driving long distances can have an hypnotic effect on the mind and cause people to doze off,” says Mehta.
Advertisers and media planners recognize the advantage of billboards in marketing products. M P Jewellers, which has been the first major jewellery concern in the city to use print, television, radio and billboards, finds hoardings to be the most advantageous is terms of conversion into sales. Proprietor and partner Shibankur Roychowdhury found billboards yield “better results than anything else” and hence utilized the medium to even declare the firm’s staunch support for the Indian cricket team during the World Cup, just so that it could enhance the recall value of its products.
The Statesman’s campaign using billboards and banners also showed “a 6 percent rise in circulation figures” (to quote Vice President Anand Sinha), while Hindustan Times hoardings resulted in a several-fold rise in its circulation in Kolkata.
Although brand marketing officials at The Telegraph are cautious about putting a finger and ascribing its rising sales graph to billboard advertising or advertising on metro panels or Incoda Metro TV, a TNS-Mode study has revealed very high brand recall value for outdoor underground advertising.
Nicco Parks and Resorts recently used billboards to successfully launch its Funcard scheme. Marketing Consultant Abeer Chakravarty who spearheaded the launch says, “This was a supportive medium for brand recall among the masses. Our primary vehicle, of course, was the press/print media where we extensively advertised.”
J Walter Thompson Associate Vice President and Client Services Director, Suman Verma analyses the choice of billboard advertising: “The impact of outdoor can never be underestimated for a mega lifestyle product, such as jewellery. Where there is more to see, it is better to use an outdoor advertisement. The aspirational values come out very well. When I plan for such an ad, my adspend would be 75:25 with a skew towards outdoor, rather than print. Where there is more written matter, I would opt for the print medium. Brand visibility is much in an outdoor, given the fact that a hoarding is always placed in a strategic location.”
While agreeing to Verma’s contentions, Prachar Samabaya Partner, Sudip Majumdar also sees billboards especially advantageous in localized advertising. “A showroom seeking to entice customers in a huge market can easily do so by placing a hoarding strategically. The bigger canvas can make everything look much better, and get a customer to appreciate the products so much more. Hoardings also provide the most appropriate vehicle for a sustained campaign, as is evident from the current Hutch ad.”
While there is consensus about its advantages, not all agree about billboards being the cheapest option available to advertisers. Although Sudeep Ganguly and Ranjit Banerjee consider billboards cheap, given that a Rs 40,000 payment can reach the target audience for a minimum of 30 days, as against Rs 2.5 lakh for a print ad, and Rs 1.5 lakh for a ten second slot. Verma begs to differ, saying, “The rates for billboards at strategic locations are quite high. But I would not mind paying the amount, since that would assure me a mass audience – something that is necessary for certain products. ”
But then, everyone is for regulation. Sudip Majumder, Ranjeet Banerjee, Sudeep Ganguly and Noomi Mehta are all for “reasonable regulation” which they see as in the best interests of the industry. “Clutter is certainly not of any benefit to any client, whose message can just get lost in the crowd.”
Ganguly even goes so far as to suggest “self-regulation” on the part of outdoor advertising agencies in the interests of maintaining the city skyline. “Or else, Kolkata may have to go the Delhi way. In Delhi, hoardings have been thrown out forthwith. The city is the first to have totally de-cluttered its skyline, with merely railway stations, and public utilities like toilets, and backlit bus shelters allowed to carry hoardings and advertisements.”
“In fact,” Ganguly points out, “we at Accord Advertising have been particular to refuse putting up more than one hoarding at a single location. We have also refused to put up hoardings where someone’s window or gate was being covered. It is another matter that often, some other agency has put up a hoarding at the same location after we have refused to do so.”
Everyone feels that hoardings are a necessary vehicle to reach out to the masses, and are here to stay. But, the nature of hoardings is certainly to change. If backlit bus shelters have already been put up all over Salt Lake and the Bypass by Accord, Adways has brought moving displays on the road leading to Nicco Park. In times to come, hoardings will cease to be the two-dimensional colour or black and white that they have been far. Instead, to quote Verma, “More and more utilities will be used as vehicles to enable the advertiser to put his message across.”
It is not just a question of revenue, which municipal authorities of any city cannot do without, Adways proprietor S K Bhattacharjee points out. Hoardings are an intrinsic part of any city skyline, without which the city can lose character. “Can anyone think of Mumbai minus the moving displays at Marine Drive Queen’s Necklace? Or for that matter, New York minus the visual attraction of Times Square. It is the hoardings of Piccadilly Circus that lend its very character,” opine Mehta, Roychowdhury and Ganguly.
Besides, even in Delhi where hoardings have been swept clean following a public interest litigation, fabulous bus shelter displays and kiosks have taken their place. “When one arm is cut off, another limb will always take its place,” says Verma.
In conclusion, even if the staid huge hoardings were to disappear, one could safely expect something more visually exciting to take its place.