Fake OOH, the next frontier or misleading stunts?

Jason Pollock
By Jason Pollock | 6 March 2024

A giant mascara wand swiping ‘eyelashes’ on the front of London public transport.

The iconic Big Ben ‘wearing’ a North Face puffer jacket.

A spot on the Sydney Harbour bridge transformed into a promotion for Jack Reacher.

A makeup product adding a splash of colour to a woman’s cheek on an Australian beach.

A cosmetics brand taking over the iconic Bondi Icebergs pool.

All of these examples and countless more have done the rounds on social media in recent months (the Maybelline example many times over), going viral as viewers ‘oohed’ and ‘aahed’ over the perceived creativity of the stunts.

The only problem is none of them were real.

All are examples of what is termed fake/faux-out-of-home (FOOH), a relatively new phenomenon whereby computer-generated imagery (CGI) is used to create out-of-home (OOH) advertisements or activations that look real but are all digitally manipulated into merely appearing that way.

Often commissioned by the brands themselves (sometimes without the involvement of their OOH partner), or in some cases created by crafty CGI artists online without any participation or permission from a company, FOOH threatens to shake up the sector in ways that OOH players see as both positive and negative.

Proving the power of out-of-home

Steve O'ConnorSteve O’Connor (pictured right), CEO of JCDecaux Australia and New Zealand, says the fact that brands are using CGI to create FOOH campaigns just proves the power of the format.

“These moments are often being used on social media to generate a buzz in an attempt to go viral, but, in my view, nothing compares to the impact the real thing has,” he says.

“OOH continues to be one of the only channels experiencing steady growth in a turbulent and fragmenting market. Think about whether the money spent on a one-off stunt is worth the investment or is the ROI on a real OOH campaign going to have longer-term brand impact, rather than a moment of short-term gratification?”

Mo Moubayed, co-founder of Veridooh, says FOOH ads definitely bring more vibrant discussions about OOH as a format.

“They are very creative and exciting to watch and when done well allow brands to have fun with their brands and grab people's attention across social media,” he tells AdNews.

“The fact that brands utilise FOOH definitely proves that activating your brand in OOH is effective at scale and highlights the widespread appeal of the channel.”

Last month, Carl Sarney, TRA's head of strategy, told AdNews that by hacking the trend of FOOH, small brands can create the illusion of bigness.

Tennille Burt, CMO of QMS, says that while it borrows almost entirely from the power of the medium of OOH, FOOH really should be thought of as a separate entity, relying on social channels to reach audiences.

“It is a striking creative tactic to generate awareness and talkability which, once unleashed, can create a viral reaction – but without appearing in the real world, it can become a complex relationship for brands to traverse with audiences in shaping their behaviours and building trust,” she says.

“OOH is the foundation of the creative showstoppers FOOH has created, simply because it leans entirely on the breadth of creative opportunity and latitude possible in real OOH assets and the enormous audiences they reach and influence daily. 

“Our industry can see how this creative explosion has occurred borrowing from the OOH world but after that, the two could not be more different. For the benefit of advertisers and in the interest of transparency, FOOH probably needs to be reclassified as a form of adapted reality for online media.”

Ethical concerns 

For all the praise of how creative and innovative FOOH is, there also exists very real ethical concerns about how it’s both being used by marketers and then received by consumers.

This is especially relevant in an age where the rapid development of artificial intelligence – manifesting in tools like Sora AI, a video generator that enables users to convert text to video - threatens the jobs of those in creative industries.

Moubayed says people love the FOOH ads because they love OOH, not because they are fake.

“Does it hurt the perception of OOH? I think the more poignant question is does it hurt the perception of the brand? Marketers should be cautious of trying to pass anything fake off as real to their audiences,” he says.

The Veridooh co-founder says the rise of deepfakes and CGI means that consumers already have a lot to be distrustful about when online, which is likely driving the growing distrust consumers already have with social media platforms, whereas OOH is “one of the most trusted mediums”.

“Marketer's must ask themselves two questions: does this FOOH ad lead to mistrust in my brand and can I pull this off in the real world? If they can pull it off in the real world then they should and the brand will win over consumers at a higher rate than any FOOH ad could possibly claim to," he says.

Tennille BurtQMS’ Burt (pictured right) says that on one hand the believability of a FOOH ad gives it impact, but it is a visual stunt that is designed to deceive the audience and that can come at the expense of breaking the audience’s trust.

“In the case of FOOH, it’s the medium – not the message – which is deceiving, especially if it borrows from well-known out-of-home locations and sites,” she tells AdNews.

“This is particularly relevant for the OOH sector which scores highly on brand safety, trust and authenticity in multiple industry surveys. None of us should wish this to be blurred by the sometimes untransparent attribution of FOOH to real OOH.

“I anticipate that should FOOH become a more frequently used creative tactic then the industry will need to establish a set of advertising standards for transparency and disclosure.”

Not only does FOOH deliberately blur the lines between what’s real and what’s fake - especially when the marketers or brands themselves don’t initially disclose the role of CGI in the activations - but can also lead to brand safety concerns too.

If you’re an OOH company and somebody online decides to take it upon themselves to create a FOOH campaign utilising either a brand that is a client of yours and/or an OOH site that you own, how do you mitigate the after-effects of such a stunt, especially if it goes viral and gets news coverage?

O’Connor says in an era where CGI blurs the boundaries between reality and fiction, ethical considerations regarding the use of FOOH means brands should tread carefully to avoid attempts to deceive audiences.

“The allure of sparking a talkable moment should be balanced with transparency to prevent disillusionment and maintain trust,” he says.

The future of the format

Given the explosion of FOOH in recent times, marketers are right to wonder if this will be the next big thing in the OOH space or another flash in the pan, trendy today only to be cast aside tomorrow.

Veridooh co-founder Mo Moubayed.Moubayed (pictured right) says that he thinks there may be a slight increase in usage of FOOH in the short term, but time will tell how this will affect brands and whether it will be a part of their long-term strategies.

“What is clear though is that brands will turn more to OOH to pull off more exciting and daring OOH activations in the future as we all have seen the impact of such OOH activations,” he says.

Burt says that as the OOH industry is one that thrives on the latest creative trends and tactics, so she confident there is still much more to come for FOOH.

“We can still appreciate and applaud the notoriety it can create for a brand, but there is a second irony to consider - the ongoing advancement of creative in real world OOH like 2D, 3D, anamorphic fantasies, integration of CGI, which is so rich and effective at creating cut through and talkability, that it is producing results equal to if not greater than the faux version – with your brand’s trust and transparency intact,” she says.

“We all want to continue to push for creative innovation with the melding of technology to inspire audiences and propel brands, but we also want to maintain authenticity.

“Which begs the question for advertisers and agencies - why fake it when you can actually make it?”

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