Why 3D billboards are the best way to grab real-world attention

February 28, 2024
The UPS store 3D billboard at the heart of New York City
Daan van der Wiele
Written by

Daan van der Wiele

Head of Marketing and Product

It’s a bird! It’s a plane! No, it’s…a giant 3D BMW driving towards me in the middle of Times Square?

We don’t need to tell you much about billboard advertising. The idea has been around since the 1830s when a man going by the name of Jared Bell began printing large posters to advertise circuses in New York. Shortly followed by P.T. Barnum (the extravagant entrepreneur who inspired The Greatest Showman film)  who added elaborate colour and features for his upcoming shows.

However, almost 200 years on, these humble posters have evolved into 14,000 square feet displays that tower over pedestrians in the middle of Times Square in New York. A recent BMW ad for their new XM SUV was the perfect attention-grabbing example to welcome 3D advertising as a great new tool in the modern OOH advertiser’s toolbelt.

What are 3D billboards, and how do they work?

3D billboards are large, digital billboards that use ‘Naked eye’ 3D image technology to create a vivid sense of perspective and depth to the viewer. If executed well (as seen above), the billboard creates an optical illusion that makes the viewer feel as if the subject of the billboard is ‘coming out’ of the screen, without the need for 3D glasses. Perfect for grabbing the attention of pedestrians on the street!

The 3D footage that is used to create the illusion is made by combining two versions of the same content filmed from the exact same angle as human eyes would see it. The billboard makes use of what is known as a Parallax Barrier, which uses a series of linear ‘stripes’ in front of the display. These so-called stripes block the light from each of the separate images being seen by the other eye. The is meant to mimic how our eyes would ‘combine’ the visual stimuli taken in from both our eyes to create a three-dimensional perception of the world.

Image Source: Optics3D

The end-result is an extremely convincing and attention-grabbing advertisement, which is significantly more capable of standing out from all the surrounding visual clutter, particularly in a crowded environment such as Times Square.

Why are 3D billboards important?

2D billboards and posters have been a key instrument in out-of-home marketing for almost 200 years now, and it’s not looking like that will change any time soon. According to data from DashTwo, 75% of travelers in the US have seen a digital billboard in the past month, and 55% report say they were “highly engaged” by the brand’s message.

In an increasingly digital world, billboards remain one of the most effective (and therefore important) ways that brands can spread their message to their target audience in the physical world. And the numbers are showing exactly that, with over $7 billion USD spent on out-of-home (OOH) advertising in the US alone in 2021, which is expected to grow to almost $8.7 billion by 2026.

But again, the digital world presents new challenges to advertisers. Consumers are being exposed to more brands and advertisements than ever before (Over 5,000 per day in the US!). We are using more and more screens, simultaneously. It’s becoming faster and easier to ‘subscribe’ to updates from your friends, favourite celebrities and publications. Social media giants whose existence depends upon getting as much attention as possible have some of the best product teams in the world crafting the ideal experience to grab every possible bit of attention from their (almost) ever-growing user base.

So basically,  there is a lot of fierce competition in the battle for attention. But we still only have the same mental processing power as we’ve always had.

We’ve seen many clever attempts in the past to grab attention with 2D billboards. Just take a look at this Samsonite billboard below, which attempts to create a feeling of the suitcases ‘standing out’ by removing the background from the top section of the billboard. By creating a type of illusion that makes it seem like you have a few floating suitcases in front of you, this makes the products more visually salient, through a type of attention known as bottom-up attention. Clever, right?

Image source: Ultralinx

Now, thanks to the technology available from 3D billboards, there will be no more cutting-off-the-top necessary. Advertisers can now create a significantly more convincing optical illusion that is far more likely to be visually salient.

What are some of the best examples of 3D billboards?

So, we’ve spoken a bit about what 3D billboards are, and why they are important. But how have advertisers actually been using them? Take a look at 5 of our favourite 3D billboards below, as selected by the team:

The Wheel of Time in London
With an excellent use of space and contrast, the Wheel of Time billboard creates a near-realistic vision of a giant hand and other figures emerging from darkness in Piccadilly Circus.

Samsung Galaxy Unpacked: Tiger in the city (multiple locations)
Samsung was drawing eyes all across the world in their February 2022 Galaxy Unpacked campaign, with a tiger as the lead character!

Nike Air Max in Tokyo
This billboard has a serious ‘wow’ factor about it. The moment the shoe box pops and the classic Air Max shoe appears to float in front of your eyes…you can’t look away.

BMW XM in New York
With a clever use of angles and shadows on the outer border., BMW appears to make the XM appear as if it’s driving out of the screen certain moments. I don’t know about you, but I would certainly look if i saw a giant BMW drifting right above my head!

Meta Quest 2 in London
Similar to the BMW ad, this Meta billboard uses a clever combination of shadow overlapping the outer border to give the feeling that certain characters are ‘diving’ out of the screen.

House of Dragon in New York
Ok, maybe we’re a little biased as massive GoT/HoD fans, but what grabs attention better than a fire-breathing dragon?

How do 3D billboards compare with traditional billboards?

We’ve now looked at a few examples of 3D billboards. And indeed they are very innovative and great fun, but how do they actually compare to 2D billboards? Is there actually additional value provided compared to purchasing a cheaper, non-digital alternative?

In terms of pedestrian traffic, it’s entirely dependent on the location. A 3D billboard in Times Square would likely receive just as many people walking by as any other 2D billboard in the same location. But the important question remains - how much attention would it receive?

To answer this question, we’ve analysed a couple of examples with In this case, we looked at two photos of the exact same billboard in Piccadilly Circus, London. On the left, we see an image taken from the recent Meta quest 2 3D billboard. In this case, we see that the billboard receives 80% of the visual attention in the image. Whereas on the right, we see the same billboard shown with an assortment of 2D advertisements. This version of the billboard only receives 51% of attention, meaning that the 3D version receives over 50% more attention, relative to the 2D version.

Keep in mind that there are also several factors that would effect the attention such as the time of day, colours used in the billboard, and other surrounding visuals. However, even keeping such factors in mind, the difference is very significant.

5 tips for testing the attention on your own billboard

So, let’s say you’re very keen to get started and you want to get your own 3D billboard (or even a 2D billboard) as soon as possible. That’s great, but how are you going to test it? You can look at the pedestrian or vehicle traffic in the area, but how do you know if your fancy new billboard is being noticed? Thanks to our extensive research in optimising OOH media with our parent company Alpha.One, we’ve got 5 handy tips for creating and testing your billboard:

Tip 1: Always test your billboard in context

Notice that in the above example, we didn’t compare just the images shown on the billboards by themselves. We actually used an image showing the billboards within the context where they are shown to the target audience (Piccadilly Circus). This is essential to make sure that you test your billboard in a realistic setting, and you receive results that reflect the same conditions in which your target audience will see the billboard.

To give you an idea, we quickly put together the below example to show you how this could be done. All you need is a picture of the location you want to show your billboard, and some simple editing software (Figma, Photoshop, even Apple Preview or Paint will do the job).

All you need to do is upload your billboard design, and resize it to fit in the space where the billboard is shown.

Tip 2: Test multiple variations in the same setting

Let’s assume you’ve decided on a location for your billboard for strategic reasons. Perhaps due to the type of people who visit the area, the number of people or another reason that is important for your marketing goals. Now, you need to ensure that you’re making the best possible creative asset for that location.

You can actually see a great example of testing multiple variations in the above comparison of the 2D and 3D billboards. By testing two different creative concepts in the same location, we can identify which one will receive more attention, and therefore more eyes on your brand and/or product.

With a quick test on (see examples below), we were able to identify that the billboard with the white background received 1.8% more attention than the version with the yellow background. This may seem like a  minor change, but it’s important to note that subtle things like colour changes will indeed have an effect on the attention given to the billboard. Especially with significant foot traffic in major cities, this could result in major gains for your campaign.

Tip 3: Grab attention with contrast

In out-of-home advertising, contrast is key. Especially if you’re advertising in high population-density areas (which is often the case). There will be a lot of visual clutter and other stimuli to compete with. So make sure you use colours that have a high level of contrast against the surrounding environment. For example, use lighter, bright colours if your billboard is in a dark environment (for example, in a tunnel) or if your billboard is in a lighter coloured area (like outside a new building with a bright shiny façade) try using darker colours and shades to make sure your billboard stands out.

Tip 4: Create a central focus point

People don’t go out to look at billboards. So when they do see your billboard, they’re probably on their way somewhere and don’t have much time to stand around trying to understand what’s going on. Most would just see a billboard for a matter of seconds before they are off on their way again.

Keep it simple, create a central focus point with as few visual elements as possible. If you test your billboard with and see too many different attention ‘blobs’ (more than 2) on your heatmap, you know you’re not on the right track.

Tip 5: Use faces, and point their eyes towards your product

Through years of eye tracking studies with Neuromarketing research company Alpha.One and, we have learned that faces consistently grab the attention of the human eye. It’s instinctive and subsconscious, but we have consistently found that using faces in advertising will draw the attention of people. However, be careful if you do use faces. Ensure that the eyes of the face are pointed towards the brand, product or whichever element you want the target audience to notice. This is because our gaze tends to follow that of the face which we are looking at.

That wraps up the tips on how to test your billboard. We hope you find these tips helpful, and you have learned something new about 3D billboards and the technology behind them. If you want to get started with the quickest, most cost effective way of measuring attention to your 3D (or 2D) billboard, get started with a free account today.

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