The Past, Present and Future of Printed Outdoor Advertising

We were chatting in the office today about the history of billboard printing and what direction it will go in the future so I decided to put this little piece together. It’s a longer read than our usual articles but I hope you enjoy it. We’d love to hear your thoughts in the comments at the end too.

Billboard Adverts – From Then To Now

Outdoor advertising has been a highly popular method of promoting products and services for hundreds of years, where shop owners would paint advertisements on the sides of their premises. Printed advertising began in 1794 with the invention of Lithography, which made it possible to create posters.


It wasn’t too long before people realised they could cash in, and the earliest known billboard rentals date back to 1867. The first 24-sheet billboard was displayed at the Paris Exposition in 1889, and the format became very popular for a variety of advertising needs, particularly circuses or traveling fairs, and later on the outside of cinemas or theatres for movies, operas, musicals and pantomimes.

While outdoor advertising was common on buildings, fences or roadside billboards in local towns, highways and ‘main’ roads were less popular sites. This all changed after the invention of Henry Ford’s Model T (the first affordable car), which sold one million vehicles by 1920. Highways were found to be subject to much higher usage once drivers began to dominate the roads, resulting in the
billboard reaching out to a larger audience. As soon as this was realised, roadside advertising really took off.

Since then, billboards have become something we expect to see on our travels. However, over the years there have been restrictions placed on advertising that has changed the nature of what we see or where they are placed. When tobacco advertising became restricted, forbidding it to be promoted through television advertising, the cigarette companies embraced billboards as a strong alternative until this too was outlawed years later.

Now, we pass brightly coloured printed outdoor advertisements in so many innovative locations on a daily basis. Traditional gable-ends, walls, fences, roadsides, buses and fields are still common, but now we see ads on places such as bridges over motorways, on people (sandwich boards or handheld boards), on roofs, on windows, on trailers attached to the back of a car… every outdoor surface can be turned into a space for printed outdoor advertising.

Outdoor advertisements themselves are very versatile and come in a range of variations:

  • 6-sheet prints: Smaller size ads usually found in bus shelters. Sometimes available as scrolling or scrolling with backlighting.

Bus shelter ad campaign

  • 24 sheet, 48 sheet or 96 sheet prints: 48 and 96 sheet printed ads are the most common sizes for larger ads, although 24-sheet locations are available in some areas.
  • Fixed billboards: As the most commonly seen billboard ads, fixed billboards or ‘traditional’ billboards are usually the cheapest option and have been around for a long time.
  • Backlit billboards: The same as fixed, but with backlighting so it can be seen any time of the day or night. These do cost more to run because of the electricity element.
  • Scrolling billboards: Scrolling billboards often have two or three advertisements in them and ‘scroll’ around like the blackboards we would see in schools. Sometimes, all three faces will be occupied by the same advertising campaign, or they may have three completely different ads displayed from three different companies. Also available with backlighting.

Multi-vision billboards:

These billboards split the ad into strips which rotate frequently. Again, some will contain three ads from the same company or campaign where others will have three very different adverts inside. Vehicular advertising: Cars, buses and taxis make an excellent place for printed ads as they travel and reach a massive audience. While they are smaller, they are often simple and bold for maximum impact. Some ads are printed as normal but some ads, particularly those on taxis or cars are printed on vinyl for application directly to the paintwork. Escalator advertisements: Quite a new addition, printed ads are becoming a common sight
on the panels of escalators. These are usually printed with vinyl or similar materials so they can be applied and removed easily.

Roundabout advertisements are not a new concept and can be seen across the country, but recently, a council in North East England overruled plans for advertisements to be placed on roundabouts in 26 locations across the south east of county due to concerns for public safety. Councillors believe that advertising in this manner could distract drivers or cause more damage should a car accident occur. Some sites were approved, but the additional unapproved sites were intended to generate income to fund improvements across the county which may now be left on a back-burner due to the lack of funding.

A Billboard Proposal

Ever heard of a billboard proposal? Well Wayne Eldridge from Greenwich had the idea after Primesight replaced two vandalised billboards outside his local Asda supermarket.

Billboard proposal

The billboard ad was timed to be displayed just as his partner would visit the supermarket for her weekly shop. The other board, next to the proposal message (a picture of a diamond ring with the words ‘Kerri, will you?’), was hidden until Kerri accepted, and congratulated them on the proviso that she said ‘Yes’. I’d hate to think what would happen if she said ‘no’! This just goes to emphasise the versatility of the billboard. Here is another recent take on a billboard proposal which is proving quite popular in the states.

Recent years have seen changes in outdoor advertising. In 2010, a scented billboard campaign was launched which gave off a scent of black pepper and charcoal to promote the sales of beef in a grocery store in North Carolina. What will they think of next?

What do we see from the future of outdoor printed advertisements?

We are currently in the digital age. A lot of advertising is done online or on television now, or on digital displays. These aren’t widespread yet, but can be seen in big cities across the world such as London, New York and Tokyo.

Time Square Billboard Advertising

Amid fears that all advertising is going online, outdoor advertising does appear to be making a comeback. Revenue from outdoor advertising peaked in 2006-2007 but dipped shortly after, possibly due to the recession. However, in 2012, there was a reported 9.5% increase, due in part to the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic games. The rise could indicate that revenues could be higher
again in 2013. Only time will tell.

There are concerns that billboard advertising may become redundant in the future due to advances in technology allowing digital billboards. While these are expensive to install, the digital ads have a lot of potential. Instead of having one advert on them for a fixed period of say three months, digital displays can run a number of different advertisements; they can display videos, and generally
are more versatile than printed advertisements. As it stands, many companies prefer traditional billboards because their advert will be displayed for a fixed period and if commuters pass the same way every day, it is more likely that the advert will make a lasting impression. However, recent statistics could change this opinion.

  • Advertising on digital billboards will double be 2015 and is the second fastest growing form of advertising.
    90% of outdoor ads will be digital at the turn of the century.
  • Almost half of consumers stop to interact with digital outdoor advertisements, compared to the 4% who stop to look at printed ads.
  • Seven in ten people who interact with digital outdoor advertising will tell a friend within three days, and it is estimated that 18% tell more than seven people, spreading the reach of the ad further than just the ones who see it.

Here is a video of a digital 96 sheet billboard in Birmingham. As you can see it is pretty striking…

Of course, it is unlikely that digital ads will fully replace roadside ads, particularly on busier roads due to the distraction factor. Moving all-singing-all-dancing digital ads are much more likely to distract a driver to the point of an accident when compared with a classic billboard, giving the traditional printed boards their place in the future market.

I know this is much longer than our usual articles but I’m over the moon if you have made it this far – I hope you’ve enjoyed the read. Please leave your comments below. We’d love to know what you think the future of billboards and outdoor advertising will be.

Our article has been featured as a guest blog post on Out of Home International. Out of Home International are an out of home media specialist and offer advertisers enormous reach and true engagement with their key audiences, through the vast range of outdoor advertising space available in London, the UK and Internationally.

Francis is a print fanatic. From a family of printers he had ink on his fingers at an early age. Francis enjoys the challenges that the printing industry present with each new project as “it keeps him on his toes”. Ping him a message on twitter or drop a comment below. When he’s not wrapped up in posters and POS he enjoys snowboarding, keep fit and time with the wife and kids.

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