Acting bigger than you are – How brands are faking broadcast media to signal popularity

Carl Sarney
By Carl Sarney | 6 February 2024
Carl Sarney.

Humans are drawn to what's popular – brands that are big, or that act big, are more successful. Whether it’s famously being the ‘big one’ in your category, or cunningly acting bigger than you are, it’s all about signalling popularity which creates trust and desire. So, if bigness is good for business, what can small brands do?

The business of faking bigness

By hacking the trend of faux-out-home advertising (FOOH), small brands can create the illusion of bigness. Historically, broadcast media has been used to signal the popularity of a brand – think big billboards, coveted TV ad spots and memorable radio jingles. Today, marketers are harnessing broadcast’s bigness, without the expensive media buy, to achieve virality on social media. Using a playful concept, Photoshop, CGI or AI image generation, marketers are creating innovative fake out-of-home advertising concepts that are sparking engagement and conversation.

Success is in the signalling

What does success look like? It all comes down to signalling ‘bigness’ through fame, social norming, creative concept and location choice.

The whole point of FOOH is to create an impact on social media, so think social. How will the image and the post copy get people commenting and sharing it? AI image generation knows no bounds and ideas that get the audience questioning ‘is this even be real?!’ will create surprise, intrigue and conversation. RAINS played on this concept by sharing a video that seemed to show rain falling inside their new London store.

Social norming
In behavioural science, the 'herding effect' refers to our tendency to do what we see others doing. By including imagery of crowds or queues in your creative signals the ‘herding effect’, that lots of people are seeing your concept or flocking towards your product – even if they aren't. This has the X factor of social norming, a popularity effect. When JD Sports ran their viral video of jumbo puffer jacket on Big Ben in London, crowds of onlookers could be heard talking about what they were seeing.
Creative concept
Literal bigness seems to be a theme of the most talked about FOOH ads in 2023. Brands depicting huge products play to audience curiosity. Maybelline used CGI to depict a giant mascara brush brushing giant false lashes on top of a London tube train and brands such as L’Oreal, Chelsea Football Club and Jacquemus bags have all played will larger-than-life CGI concepts too.  

Location choice
To amplify social norming, choose a location to advertise your product with lots of foot traffic. Freedom of choice, without the bounds of budgets, is the beauty of FOOH. Times Square? No problem. Sydney Opera House? Why not. The Vegas Sphere is reportedly charging $2 million for an ad slot during the Super Bowl, what if a smaller, tongue-in-cheek brand mocked up an image of their ad on this sought-after spot?

Measuring success

Brand metrics that FOOH can shift include the sense of momentum – ‘a brand that’s really on the way up’ – and the sense of fit – ‘a brand for people like me’. These are important metrics for gauging overall brand strength. As it exists in social media, it’s also the conversation around the creative that creates a bigness impression i.e. comments, shares and even earned media attention.

Some may ask whether it’s wrong to take advantage of advertising real estate without paying for the privilege. In my view, this approach is just another creative way of telling a story and self-aware brands that use this approach to their advantage stand to be rewarded for cleverness and humour.

Ultimately, in a world where size matters, FOOH is an opportunity for small brand budgets to act with a big brand attitude.

Carl Sarney, Head of Strategy at TRA

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