Forget paper and paste: the age of the living poster is here

The ads have started talking to your mobile. Soon they will tune in to you, says Meg Carter
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Billboards that can send marketing messages to passing mobile phones and even respond to our changing moods are the latest weapons being used by advertisers desperate to grab our attention while we're on the move. Digital technology is making the once-humble poster ad interactive, and there's more to come with the UK launch of the first digital posters next month.

Billboards that can send marketing messages to passing mobile phones and even respond to our changing moods are the latest weapons being used by advertisers desperate to grab our attention while we're on the move. Digital technology is making the once-humble poster ad interactive, and there's more to come with the UK launch of the first digital posters next month.

A two-week advertising campaign now promoting the launch of Moby's new album, Hotel, offers a glimpse of things to come. Conventional posters fitted with short-range wireless devices called hypertags are being used to send information to the mobile phones of passers-by via infra-red or Bluetooth wireless technology. All mobile users need to do is hold their phone up to the tagged poster to receive money off vouchers, competitions, product details, ringtones or even games.

The growing use of digital technology in outdoor media is boosting posters' popularity with advertisers, says Rachel Harker, sales and marketing director of Hypertag, the company behind this interactive poster technology, whose list of advertising clients includes 02, Procter & Gamble and Warner Brothers. "Earlier this month we ran a campaign that let people download free music clips off New Order's new album from HMV shop windows fitted with hypertags," she says. "In June we'll run our first campaign in which mobile phone users will be able to download video clips "Eventually, posters will be able to direct passers-by onto an advertiser's website, and allow them to download content straight to their mobile phone and submit personal information, too."

Not so long ago, posters were just paper sheets pasted onto a hoarding. Now, scrolling poster sites allow many different ads to be shown in one place. Devices built into posters can play music or even exude smells. In the US, still ads in train tunnels are being used to create the illusion of moving pictures for rail passengers. London Underground hopes to project moving ads onto tube track walls.

Digital technology is behind the most significant developments, says Alan James, chief executive of the Outdoor Advertising Association. "Plasma and LED screens are starting to replace conventional poster hoardings and this means advertisers are able to tailor ads to different locations," he says. "It's a major step forward; before, they had to run a single ad aimed at everyone in a fixed place for weeks."

The advantage screens have over traditional posters is impact: moving images stand out more than still. This is why advertisers using screens at sports events, stations or shops usually re-run TV ads. However, consumers often find this intrusive. So, from next month, a new approach will be tested by outdoor media company Viacom when it unveils the UK's first digital posters.

Sixty-six digital poster panels will be installed, replacing existing paper and paste hoardings running up the main escalators leading to the exit of Tottenham Court Road tube station. Each advertiser will use all of the panels to create a 10-second sequence. Viacom hopes this will inspire a new generation of "enhanced poster advertising" as each poster will be mute and portrait-shaped rather than TV's traditional letterbox format.

"No one has done digital posters before, so we must tread carefully - the danger is disorientating tube travellers as they pass by," Viacom account director Jon Lewen explains. "The creative potential, though, is to animate objects, images or text, change backgrounds and introduce a limited sequence of ideas. As this is a first, we don't yet know where the limits lie."

British Airways, 02 and insurance company Direct Line are among the advertisers that have so far signed up to produce the UK's first digital poster campaigns. "We see digital posters as the next big thing," 02 head of advertising Richard Murfitt explains.

Aside from their creative potential, Viacom's digital posters offer advertisers the chance to run different ads tailored to different groups of people travelling on the underground at different times of the day, or even ads responding to changing weather conditions or news events. "This means we can better match our messages to the changing needs and moods of consumers passing by," he says.

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