Cost of Living

From Brexit to Bernier: Why the old-fashioned billboard is still going strong

Canadians can expect to see more billboard advertising in the 2019 federal election cycle — whether it asks to "send Trudeau a message" or to "stop mass migration" — and it could be because billboards are one form of advertisement that can't be blocked or easily ignored.

Outdoor advertising spending in Canada grew by 40 per cent from 2012 to 2018

A worker changes over a Pattison Outdoor billboard in Calgary, Alta. (Paul Haavardsrud/CBC)

Canadians can expect to see more billboard advertising in the 2019 federal election cycle — and it could be because billboards are one form of advertisement that can't be blocked or easily ignored.

Even though the official election campaign is only a few days old, political battles have already been drawn in public spaces high above the ground this summer.

  • CBC Radio's new business and economics show, Cost of Living, airs on CBC Radio One every Saturday at 11:30 a.m. (12 p.m. NT) or online anytime at CBC Listen.

An anti-immigration billboard featuring the People's Party of Canada leader Maxime Bernier sparked outrage in Halifax in August.

Two weeks after the controversial billboard came down, the Halifax Chamber of Commerce teamed up with the Immigrant Services Association of Nova Scotia and EduNova to erect nine pro-immigration ads in the Halifax area. 

A billboard featuring Maxime Bernier pictured in late August 2019 in Toronto. (Moe Doiron/Reuters)

Elsewhere in the country, anti-Trudeau billboards were up in Ontario, Saskatchewan and Alberta, urging voters to "send [Liberal Leader Justin] Trudeau a message" by ousting Liberal MPs.

Liberal candidate Ralph Goodale called the ads an "ugly American way of campaigning."

These billboards popped up around Regina in the spring and were part of a multi-province ad campaign aimed at Liberal MPs and Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. (Marie-Christine Bouillon/Radio-Canada)

Billboards hard to ignore

Spending on outdoor advertisements, sometimes called out-of-home ads, grew by 40 per cent from 2012 to 2018 and accounted for 5.1 per cent of Canadian ad spending, according to the Canadian Out of Home Measurement Bureau.

That amounts to an additional $170 million per year going into billboards, bus shelters, the sides of airplanes, highways and other outdoor spaces.

"The consumer is spending more time away from home than they've had before, and they're spending less time on traditional media than they have before," said Randy Otto, president of Pattison Outdoor, which controls a large portion of the billboard market in Canada. 

"Where [consumers] are definitely getting exposed to a lot of advertising is when they're away from their home," Otto told Cost of Living host Paul Haavardsrud.

Randy Otto is president of Pattison Outdoor, one of the big players in outdoor billboards in Canada. (Paul Haavardsrud/CBC)

"The one media that reaches them is out-of-home," said Otto.

Among old-school ad methods, the increased spending on billboards is an outlier. While newspaper and magazine readership is down, few consumers can avoid the sight of a roadside billboard or bus.

Despite the modern bombardment of social media and digital ads, physical advertising stands out as it can't be hidden.

A Vote Leave bus parked outside the Houses of Parliament during the Brexit referendum campaign in 2016. (Getty Images)

Look no further than the infamous Brexit bus as an example of how the physical can command our attention.

The big red bus proclaiming the U.K. pays £350 million per week to the EU — an assertion that was later proven false — became a symbol of the Brexit movement in 2016.

Billboards getting smarter

Billboards are by definition limited to the confines of whatever physical space has been purchased for them. However, advances in LED display and wireless technology have brought billboards into the digital age.

As a result, many outdoor ads are smarter and more personalized. 

Companies, for example, can adjust the message on a digital billboard to suit the changing weather, such as an advertisement for snow scrapers when it's snowing versus camping gear in sunny conditions. 

Billboards with cameras can also identify vehicle makes and models, flipping roadside advertisements to target each passing car. 

Some jurisdictions fight back

In response to public pressure, some jurisdictions have opted to introduce legislation to limit or ban billboards as a way to fight "visual pollution." 

The City of Vancouver first started clamping down on outdoor signs in 1989. According to a 2017 report from Vancouver city planners, more than 70 per cent of that city's billboards didn't meet regulation.

A promotional illustration on the Burke Billboards website shows a now-banned floating billboard on a boat in Vancouver's False Creek, in front of Science World. (Burke Billboards)

According to Jenny Odell, author of How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy, the best way to fight against feeling bombarded on an individual level is to become aware of all the advertisements around us.

"It's similar to this idea of knowing your enemy," said Odell, who draws her philosophy from the Japanese martial art of Aikido.

"You're sort of using the motion of your opponent for yourself instead of directly fighting against it. I want to understand [these ads] and I want to understand what they are doing."


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?