Richmond Chamber of Commerce commissions, then censors, outdoor board

Shortly after commissioning, producing and posting an outdoor billboard along one of the interstate highways passing through Richmond, the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce ordered it taken down — and for the wrong reason.

The whole episode is a classic demonstration of what not to do in an advertising campaign.

Wrong strategy

The billboard was one of several created under the Chamber’s i.e.* initiative, whose stated purpose was “to enliven the drive through Richmond with a fun, creative message that could potentially convert travelers to tourists.”


I’m fighting traffic down the I-95 from New York to Miami, I have motel reservations for a midway stopover, and I’m going to cancel the motel, change my whole travel schedule and rearrange all my appointments to accommodate an impromptu stopover I’m going to make because of four words I saw in ten seconds driving past a billboard at 65 miles an hour.

Wrong medium

The board’s message is nice and short, which is important for outdoor, but all it does is command an audience to do what the advertiser wants it to do. No benefit, either stated or implied. No reason why. Just because.

Granted, there’s no room on an outdoor board for any real persuasion. That’s why outdoor is mainly a reminder and directional medium.

Wrong decision-makers

People who know anything about advertising could have told the Chamber this. But while the board itself was done by a small advertising agency, the decision-makers who approved, then censored, then removed it — representatives from the Valentine Richmond History Center, the Library of Virginia and the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar — know more about history than advertising.

They also, apparently, don’t know much about the meaning of their own mission, as the initiative’s website describes it:

The i.e.* initiative is a driver of innovation in the Region, which often involves stepping outside the box and looking at things differently. To innovate, one must experiment and take risks.

Wrong reason

Now, had these academics and historians killed the billboard for reasons of unrealistic strategy or ineffective media selection or overly obvious message or too much visual busy-ness, they’d have been right to do so.

But that’s not why they killed it.

They killed it because a bunch of prudes, of which Richmond has no shortage, didn’t, um, get off on the concept.

“Concerns were raised that the pun was perhaps a little too controversial and therefore was not accomplishing its original purpose,” said Lesley Bruno, director of marketing for the Greater Richmond Chamber of Commerce. “If a campaign is not achieving its goal, we discontinue it,” she added.

This last bit was disingenuous at best. Because of its unrealistic strategy, among other reasons, the campaign was doomed to not achieve its goal, not matter what the four to seven words in the billboard’s headline turned out to be.

The Chamber should have been honest up front and said that the initiative’s mission was to create advertising that was safely and blandly inside the box, since its objective was not to appeal to tourists, but just to keep its own internal constituency from feeling uncomfortable.