Blog Assignment 1: Fast Food Billboards

In Pete Barry’s introduction, he quotes Stephen Leacock: “Advertising may be described as the science of arresting the human intelligence long enough to get money from it.” Other than when there is slow moving car traffic or pedestrian traffic, billboard ads have to arrest that intelligence incredibly fast, and have to often compete with the more important act of driving for the target’s attention. It is unsurprising then, that the vast majority of billboard ads for fast food are simple in their design and message. 

A quick google image search shows that McDonald’s, mirroring their domination of the fast food market, dominates the billboard ads in terms of creativity and attention grabbing ads. Search for Wendy’s or Burger King billboards, and rather than a selection of creative ads, you’ll be hard pressed to find too much outside of the boring, hard-sell approach that might seem the most obvious for such an immediate and fleeting medium. 

Wendy’s seems content with ads like this:

ImageThe burger “Hot and Juicy”, and you get a big close up of appealing contents. There is a dishonesty in the appearance of the burger not only in this ad, but in all fast food ads that are accepted mock-ups of the actual products. Barry (p 18) says that people hate being lied to by ads, but fast food joints have apparently learned to overcome this fleeting anger, as it’s a blatant misrepresentation of the final product that is well known, but it doesn’t keep people from being persuaded by the ads to buy a burger. 

Burger King has a couple of ads, whether it be for a Whopper or a chicken sandwich, where they seem to be hoping to invert the challenge of billboard ad’s limited exposure time and turn it into a convenience. Image

The massive “FREE” is the lure, and being the principal selling point, it’s twice as large and bold as the rest of the text. It’s another misleading aspect of fast food billboards, and while it is not a lie, a customer will in fact get a free drink with their burger purchase, it’s clearly trying to capitalize on the limited exposure time to get only the most attractive part of the offer noticed while maintaining its honesty. 

One creative way of differentiating a billboard is to alter the canvas. This Burger King ad reinforces it’s selling point of the Steakhouse burger’s size by showing it breaking the billboard. It’s selling point is singular: it’s massive. No mention if tastes any good, or if it’s affordable. It takes its best quality and hammers it home through the textual and visual components of the ad. 


Modifying the canvas even more, this McDonald’s ad adds both a third dimension to a 2D canvas, as well as using a material that is recognizable as different, and therefore attention grabbing. There’s also an attempt to make “Fresh” an association with McDonald’s, an attempt to attract a different type of customer than a burger-loving McDonald’s veteran. Image

A billboard that is executed quite imaginatively is this sundial-like ad for their menu. Image

The concept may rely on a sunny morning, but ability to draw an association with the morning, and therefore all that comes with it (the sun, a coffee, some breakfast) with McDonald’s is impressive. This ad is probably the best billboard I found at making use of Barry’s “S.L.I.P. I.T.” acronym. The cleverness of using a sundial might just make you smile; it informs you of their breakfast selection; it involves each individual viewer because it changes depending on when each person views the ad and people can recognize this (perhaps only subconsciously), making their interaction seem at some level unique; lastly, it makes people think, simply by making use of a creative presentation and one of the most basic technologies, easily understood and yet easily admired for its ingenuity.

A notable feature that distinguishes the McDonald ads from the other companies’ is the power of their brand. Despite the fact that no one else makes a Whopper, and no one else uses a pig-tailed red head, both Wendy’s and Burger King have their entire name spelled out. In the fast-paced world of billboard ads, the Golden Arches, accompanied by a minuscule tagline, is enough for anyone familiar with the culture and society in which the ads are placed to know immediately which chain it is. The brand power is powerful enough to reduce the logo to a letter. The advantage in this medium is that space isn’t wasted on their name; the purpose of the ad, the message, is front and centre. 

The most consistent aspect of the ads that reflect the concepts Barry presents would be the focus on a singular idea, whether it’s quality, quantity, price, or selection. The target audience for the ads would be hungry people looking to spend only a little bit of money. The one ad here that would deviate from the typical fast-food-fan customer would be the salad, advertising a selling point that is almost antithetical to fast-food: freshness. 

If the design features of the billboard ads featured here say anything about our society as a whole, it’s that we are lured by the promise of a lot of cheap food, and are willing to let ourselves be deceived by the promise of finely prepared food according to the glamour-shots.

The limitations of the medium really do make the creativity of the good ads stand out more against the vanilla, seen-it-before, hard-sell ads that seem to be standard for the industry. 

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