Matthew Keegan
May 2, 2024

Is there a place for 'fake OOH' ads in the industry?

There's been a steep rise in 'fake ads' in the past year. With new technologies like Gen AI and CGI lowering the barrier and opening the floodgates, we explore whether fake OOH ads are inherently bad, or if they could even push marketers to create better work?

Photo: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
When Australia-based copywriter Tom Birts recently posted a mock-up EasyJet response to those slightly odd British Airways ads by Uncommon Creative Studio, it quickly went viral with many on social platforms asking if it was real.
Birt's EasyJet mock-up was so well done that it was easy to be fooled by it. But questioning whether a piece of content is real or not is a very modern dilemma of course. New technology like AI and CGI has made it increasingly easy for the unreal to seem real. Fake content is everywhere these days, and shows no signs of abating. 
In particular, fake out-of-home (FOOH) ads have seen a steady rise in recent years. Creatively reimagining traditional out-of-home advertising, these ads create fictional scenarios or illusions utilising digital computer-generated imagery (CGI) in public spaces. The Maybelline Eyelash Curler ad and Jacquemus' Le Bambino bags 'on wheels' are some of the more famous FOOH examples. 

Rather than denouncing anything that's fake as being bad, is there a time and a place for fake ads? And could they even help marketers create better work?

Birts, who posted his EasyJet mock ad on LinkedIn only for it to quickly go viral, says that he sees a clear difference between fake ads and spec, or concept, ads. 

"Fake implies the intention to deceive, and I think we’ve seen that in some cases," says Birts. "What I did [with the easyJet mock] was put forward a concept. I’m not making a moral judgement here. But they are different.

"I think concept ads definitely have a place in the industry. Presented and labelled as such, they’re an outlet for creatives, a barometer for audience sentiment and a driver of healthy discussion."

The EasyJet mock ad certainly got people talking. It racked up thousands of likes and retweets on platforms like X. But Birts says that the key is always honesty: “When I posted the mock, I was clear that it was an idea only, not real, and by me."

Birts posted his mock ad knowing a brand couldn’t do exactly as he did. But perhaps they could do something close. And plenty of people online were quick to point out the problems with the mock ad (but only if it was real, obviously).

"One thing I hear from people not in the industry is that they want braver, funnier, more interesting ads," says Birts. "They want ads to be memorable. Spec work that pushes the envelope or is especially agile can get people talking about brands and talking about advertising. The KitKit bus stop execution that went viral during Covid is a good example."
Just a fad?
FOOH (Fake out of Home) has undeniably gained popularity in recent years, with numerous brands pursuing virality through this approach. But, as with most trends or fads, is it something that the public will soon get tired of?
"With FOOH, each execution tends to follow a repetitive pattern, often featuring shapeshifting buildings or oversized objects placed in unexpected locations," says Livio Grossi, group executive creative director, Dentsu Creative Vietnam & Dentsu Redder. "The focus should be on creating the most engaging and entertaining campaign possible. The less they resemble (fake) advertisements, the happier consumers will be."
Birts believe it all comes back to honesty again.
"Nobody likes to be fooled and I think the risk with sanctioned [ie paid for by a brand] stunts that deliberately trick the audience is that people will become tired of them quickly."
Of course, tricking people on purpose can backfire, with thew danger being that anything a brand does after that could raise doubts in the minds of others. British Airways faced backlash last year after publishing an image that purported to depict a billboard at the music festival Glastonbury, where such ads are prohibited. And, GymBox, another British company, faced pushback for their FOOH campaign, which would have been the first of its type, and featured ads on top of buses in London.
Picture credit: LinkedIn

However, as long as there's some transparency, there is an argument that fake ads do have their place and could, in some ways, benefit the industry because they show clients what could be done if fear, time and money were no obstacles.

"I believe the entire advertising industry needs to use the rise in popularity of FOOH to drive a heightened level of creativity in traditional OOH," says Josh Gurgiel, head of POLY, the creative and innovation hub of oOh!media. "We need to strive to push the creative boundaries to their limit in real life, in the same way that they are being bent and reshaped online, while leveraging the credibility, longevity and brand-building power of the format."

And when it comes to the consumer, some question whether the public will even care if an ad is fake or not, as long as it's entertaining. 

"To say that the public don’t want ‘fake ads’ is like saying people wouldn’t buy tickets to see Jurassic Park because the dinosaurs are fake," says Carl Sarney, head of strategy, TRA. "If it entertains with unmistakable branding, it’s good advertising."

And Alejandro Canciobello, regional executive creative director at DDB Group Hong Kong, says that fake ads can help bring out a brand's personality and sense of humour in a way that really connects with people.

"It's all about showing the human side of the brand and making consumers feel like they're part of something real and relatable. Ironically, required layers of approval can get in the way of achieving this, and so sometimes you have to get fake to get real,” he says.

Another potential upshot of the rise in fake or mock-up ads is that new technology like AI to create images and videos massively lowers the barriers for smaller brands with smaller budgets to entertain in remarkably creative ways.

"The thing is, a lower barrier equals greater competition," says Sarney. "AI might help small brands side-step production costs, but they still need a remarkable convention-breaking idea if they want to get noticed and talked about in a big way. That’s where original human creativity will always have value. Machines can replicate, and only very talented humans can originate."

Are fake ads just something the industry will have to learn to live with?

A lot of the viral fake OOH ads were done just for PR and social media. It's quick, cost-effective, and great for testing ideas before implementation. But could overusing fake ads ultimately damage reputations and erode audience engagement and trust? 

"I believe we should embrace and adopt any technology that helps expedite the creative process, explore possibilities, and test executions," says Grossi. "However, when it comes to the final ads, we should utilise the technology that best serves the idea, rather than the other way around."

Birts believes that concept work has its own built in policing mechanism anyway.

"If it is particularly outrageous or shows the brand in a bad light it won’t get traction. There’s no sense of ‘what if they did?’ because they wouldn’t. This means that spec work that shows the brand positively gets the most attention."

The proliferation of ‘fakable’ OOH ads has driven fear among traditional OOH suppliers who view FOOH as an existential threat to the medium itself, with the common line of thinking being that advertisers will opt for artificial CGI-generated OOH ads in place of actual real-life OOH placements, effectively killing the industry.

“This fear could not be more unjustified, as the adoption of such an approach by clients would not only be dumb, stupid and just dumb, it would be entirely at odds with everything we know about how brands grow,” says Gurgiel. “Faux OOH is not the enemy of traditional OOH. It is its greatest compliment, champion, and harshest critic.

"FOOH is inadvertently selling the medium and building deeper appreciation and exposure of public space creativity. After all, people don’t just share FOOH videos on their social channels; they also notice, photograph, share and reshare great OOH executions that live in the real world. We’ve seen this with the accelerated growth of 3D anamorphic and how these executions are being amplified online to reach an even broader audience."

In any case, with new technology lowering the barrier for almost anyone to create something that looks legit, the era of 'fake' looks set to continue for a lot longer. 
"With AI image and video tech in untrained hands we’ll likely see a tidal wave of ugly amateur-designed images and videos cluttering our social media feeds," says Sarney. "It all starts looking the same, none of it stands out from the rest, and everyone knows it’s cheap so there’s no value-signalling."
"There’s an opportunity though," adds Sarney. "If your category becomes soaked in competitors faking it, you can stand out by returning to real."
Campaign Asia

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