Chris Kyme Kara Chan
Nov 25, 2022

Why Hong Kong’s outdoor advertising is underperforming

Based on a recent study by Hong Kong Baptist University, OOH ads are failing to capture people as they severely lack creativity.

A woman walks past a Tsingtao Beer billboard in Hong Kong. (Getty Images)
A woman walks past a Tsingtao Beer billboard in Hong Kong. (Getty Images)

There is a general perception in the world of advertising these days that traditional forms of advertising, such as television, printed publications and radio, have been rendered almost obsolete due to the rise of digital channels.

And while it’s true that in general across many markets, consumers now absorb much of their ‘content’ online, especial via smartphones But like it or not we can’t ignore outdoor advertising. It’s out there around us day and night. Big and bold or small and niche, we see ads at every corner. On the streets, on public transport, in buildings.

But how much of it is actually effective? Recent studies at Hong Kong Baptist University supervised by Professor Kara Chan seem to reveal, not much at all. We see it, sure. But mostly it’s like wallpaper, we just don’t pay much attention to it. This is partly because it generally all looks the same. Happy, excited customers with products, cool-looking celebrities, many of whom are representing a variety of different brands, lots of bold words or characters and colours. Some even have the Chinese and English messages crammed together in a small space. It’s no wonder that, in general, the public has become immune to it.

The Hong Kong Baptist University study also revealed which ads were more effective than others, and it was felt that most of the advertising surveyed was weak on creativity. Poster awareness ranged from the lowest (11% for a housing project to 81% for ‘Vaccination of the elderly’). Very few ads stand out and get noticed. The advertisers might think they are producing bold and exciting content, but the reality is, when it all looks the same, it just blends in with the visual jungle.

What was also questioned in the study was the effectiveness of the advertising to lead to purchase decisions, and although some of the ads prompted awareness results, intention to purchase was for the most part, low. As is responding to interactive elements such as QR codes. The fact is, 80% of respondents never scanned the QR codes they see on MTR ads.

In terms of effectiveness, there is also the question of influencing public behaviour. And when it comes to this, most government public service ads and ads of non-profit organisations fail miserably. There seems to be a general lack of understanding about the need for and role of a strategy. If you want people to do something, stop doing something, or support something, you can’t just run ads telling them to do or not do. You need to think of an argument. Something which makes them think about their actions. And deliver that message in simple and clear ways, in the appropriate media environment to reach the relevant audience.

There are certain key factors that can make some advertising campaigns stand out in the outdoor environment more than others. One is simplicity, the cleaner the design, the less words, the more chance that people on the move might subconsciously take in the message. Ads running on, say, escalator panels, containing many messages, have little or no chance of delivering anything. But creativity also plays a major role. The more interesting your message, the more captivating the image or powerful the message, the better chance it has of getting noticed. Sadly most advertising we see day to day fails in this area, and very little advertising is different or original in its approach.

There is also a general lack of understanding among advertisers as to the role of outdoor in their media mix. Outdoor ads can be great for prompting brand awareness. A simple big bold product or logo and a few words, even in the absence of any creativity. But outdoor is not a great place to deliver detailed information. So all those posters you see with lots of words and 20 small logos and other details, are quite pointless. Especially in a moving environment (either you are moving or the ad is moving).

This is not a problem unique to Hong Kong—travel anywhere and good outdoor ads are few and far between. It was not always the case in Hong Kong either. Hong Kong did enjoy a ‘golden era’ of better advertising creativity. But why should the advertisers, or for that matter the media vendors, care?

Well, the simple answer to this is that a lot of outdoor advertising in Hong Kong is a waste of money. You can put it out there, but what’s the point if it’s delivering poor results? From a media vendor’s perspective, this means that you can be held accountable. If a brand is paying good money to run ads on your sites, and not seeing the desired results, they can conclude that your particular form of outdoor doesn’t work. Without taking into account the content of the ads that are running.

The fact is, outdoor or OOH advertising is still a highly visible and relevant medium, regardless of the digital age. If you can make it work harder, the results can be very rewarding.

Chris Kyme is co-founder and creative director of Kymechow; and Kara Chan is a professor of PR and advertising at Hong Kong Baptist University.

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