Guerrilla marketers use mobile billboards for surprise ad attacks

Originally published September 30, 2008

By Ian Sherr

SAN FRANCISCO (AFP) – In a world where everything is mobile, even billboards are starting to move in surprising ways.

Large advertising messages traditionally fixed to sides of buildings or planted along roadways are being freed by digital projectors and laptop computers to pop up in unexpected places.

With these tools and some advance planning, Dennis Catalfumo and workers from Interference Inc. create advertisements where there were none before.

Though Catalfumo works primarily in New York City, one recent evening he was in Philadelphia doing “guerrilla marketing” for the Franklin Institute, a science museum and memorial to US founding father Benjamin Franklin.

Standing on a corner near some local bars, Catalfumo and an assistant projected images of a blackbird and a bicycle in a tree onto the wall of a nearby building.

“Curious?” the ad asked from the side of the building, enticing viewers to the institute’s website.

“It’s a new way to approach people,” Catalfumo told AFP. “It’s better than doing a million dollar ad clip at the Superbowl where if it isn’t ridiculous, you won’t remember it. This is an interaction that will last.”

As the night went on, the duo was approached by passersby eager for information about the website and the projected images.

“Some people hung out for a half hour to talk with other people coming up to see it,” Catalfumo said. “The reaction from people on the street seems like instant gratification and they’ll tell more people than if they just got a flier on the way to the train station.”

Sam Ewen, chief executive of Interference, said a reason most people are so receptive is because it’s so different from traditional billboards.

“People might drive by a billboard and it might register or it might not,” Ewen said. “People don’t stand around and read billboard signs.”

But projecting a video with unique images has an almost artistic effect.

“It piques people’s interest,” Ewen continued. “And the more time they spend, the more interest they have.”

Experience has taught Ewen’s team that there is more to hitting marks with guerrilla ads then simply projecting television ads on buildings.

They strive for unique, eye-catching images whether it is abstract art or a simulated tennis game between two opponents projected on neighboring skyscrapers.

When the US-based Discovery Network was preparing to release new archival footage from NASA, marketing and branding officer James Hitchcock wanted projection advertising in their campaign.

“We had 50 years of archival imagery that no one had ever seen,” Hitchcock said. “We wanted people to see it. We wanted to have rockets shooting off the buildings.”

Guerrilla marketers will usually move on at the request of those that own buildings turned into projection screens, but it doesn’t seem they are breaking any laws.

Sometimes advertisements don’t have the intended effect.

In 2007, Catalfumo invented a box that could emit an image from the sides of buildings or under a bridge. During its first use advertising a cartoon movie in Boston, a passerby thought one of the boxes might be a bomb.

“It was so blown out of proportion,” Catalfumo said.

Since then, advertising firms have put more effort into striking deals with building owners or cities to avoid misunderstandings.

“This is a form of advertising that’s working, and we’re telling cities they can regulate it and get a revenue stream,” Ewen said. “And if not, we’ll continue to do it anyway.”

(By Ian Sherr. Published Sept 30, 2008 on the wire with Agence France-Presse)