Does the Las Vegas Sphere represent the future of OOH advertising?


7th September 2023

Out of home advertising is getting bigger, bolder and, frankly, a little more bizarre.

Depending on your demographic, you may well have seen a giant blinking eyeball, alien planets or a myriad of dome-shaped visual effects crossing your TikTok feed – that would be the not-so-snappily-titled ‘Sphere at The Venetian Resort’, Las Vegas’ newest live experience venue. The exterior’s covered in 1.2 million LED screens, creating a 360° visual display that dominates the surrounding cityscape all day, all night.

There’s plenty going on inside as well. Later this month U2 will officially launch the venue with 25 concerts that will presumably take full advantage of the interior’s haptic seats, 160,000 speakers, 4D machines and ginormous wraparound screen to deliver an all-out assault on the senses.  

It’s a seriously impressive construction feat, and an agreement reached with Nevada’s largest electricity provider could see up to 70% of the Sphere’s energy supplied by solar power by the end of the decade. A bit of a woolly commitment perhaps, but if the designers live up to their promise the Sphere could be a model for modern live entertainment venues and a model for renewable energy use – two things that have rarely gone hand-in-hand. But that’s not what’s got advertisers excited.

A world of advertising opportunities

It’s been claimed that the exterior display, ‘The Exosphere’, is the largest video screen in the world and it’s already capturing attention. Locally, of course, the giant sphere is hard to ignore. It’s visible from a host of locations around Las Vegas as well as aerially. But its reach goes so much further.

As is increasingly becoming the norm, social media is the real target audience. The Sphere has already garnered a respectable online following, clocking up over 135 million views on TikTok since July. Digital billboards are hardly new, but in terms of capabilities and potential to go viral, the Sphere is essentially a billboard on steroids

The NBA had the first go at taking over the Sphere, using it to launch a brand activation campaign to promote its Summer League. The Sphere was transformed into a huge orange basketball for two weeks, which provided the perfect backdrop for players to pose in front of.

It remains to be seen how brands associated with non-spherical objects take advantage, but no doubt opportunities for memorable OOH advertising abound. In fact, it could well be a dream brief for creative designers.

Until now, digital advertising has been boxed in by four corners, but a 360-degree canvas offers all sorts of opportunities for playful narratives and visuals. The Sphere’s integrated AR features have been mooted as an exciting avenue for enhanced audience interaction and talented creatives will surely find a way to create ultra-immersive brand experiences.

Rolling up in London?

This isn’t a case of ‘what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas’. Stratford, East London, could become the site of a second sphere if it can overcome the hurdles thrown up by less-than-enthusiastic local residents. They’ve described the project as ‘monstrous’ and ‘intrusive’, and the start of construction has been delayed after intervention from the UK Government.

Planners have said that the residential location of the London Sphere would mean that the venue’s display would be subject to different considerations than the more commercially-placed Las Vegas Sphere, including limits on its brightness, the times of day it could operate and the amount of advertising it could display.

The future of the London Sphere may still be up in the air, but if it’s sister venue in Las Vegas delivers on its promise OOH advertising doesn’t seem likely to come down to earth anytime soon.

A short history of OOH advertising

Out-of-home advertising has been around a while, to put it mildly; once upon a time the Ancient Egyptians would erect stone obelisks to promote laws and treaties. But how has it developed since?

1450s – The invention of the Gutenberg press makes mass printing possible for the first time, contributing to the spread of literacy. Handbills (i.e. leaflets) were soon being used to distribute advertising information. Though not strictly OOH, this important step merits a mention.

1790s – Illustrated posters start popping up in locations with high pedestrian traffic.

1830s – Billboards emerge, with the likes of P.T. Barnum (a.k.a. Hugh Jackman from The Greatest Showman) taking advantage to promote events and products with bright hand-painted colours.

Early 1900s –Standardisation and the rise of affordable cars make billboards increasingly ubiquitous across America. Big brands like Kellogg’s and Ford can start advertising nationwide, and the power and reach of the billboard is proved in 1931 when Coca-Cola uses it to ‘rebrand’ Father Christmas in red.

1960s – JCDecaux introduces bus shelter advertisements as large media owners begin to emerge and experiment with a wider variety of ‘out-of-home’ locations.

1980s Glue manufacturers Araldite produce what may well be the world’s first example of special build billboard, using their product  to stick a car to a poster in London (admittedly, with the help of some wires) over the tagline ‘It also sticks handles to teapots.’

2000s – Digital out of home advertising is launched. LED-lit billboards are now able to quickly change their display, giving OOH adverts more opportunities to make an impact. It also greatly reduces the timescale between initial concept and ad, so advertisers can quickly respond to events with tactical campaigns.

2010s – OOH advertising continues to get evermore creative, leading to scented and interactive billboards starting to appear. An effort by Carlsberg even offers passers-by free beer from a tap-in-the-poster.

2020s and beyond – The evolution of OOH has continued apace as brands look to exploit digital connectivity, personalisation and the potential for virality through social media. As well as bigger, bolder displays like the Sphere, a new branch of OOH advertising has popped up.

Maybe you saw Maybelline’s giant mascara brush on the underground? Not real – the brand activation effort was entirely CGI. As AI and digital effects improve, and brands increasingly look to online audiences over pedestrian traffic as their key targets, watch out for more examples of ‘faux OOH’ in future…

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