BILLBOARDS ARE the oldest advertising medium in showbiz — and by some accounts the least effective. So why is New Line spending more than $2 million on its outdoor campaign for the mid-budget comedy “Wedding Crashers”?

“It creates an impression this is a big event movie,” marketing prexy Russell Schwartz said. It’s an impression New Line hopes lasts until July 15, when “Wedding Crashers” opens against another big event movie, “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.” However, Schwartz is no big fan of outdoor ads. For one thing, they’re ubiquitous — there are 10,000 billboards in L.A. alone. At a time when marketers are moving away from traditional ad media in favor of interactive campaigns that can be more seamlessly integrated into the wireless world, outdoor ads are unappealingly static.

At best, billboards may register for a few seconds in the minds of mobile consumers. But they’re rented in monthly installments and tend to hang around long after a movie opens, be it a hit or a flop. “It only works with certain kinds of movies,” Schwartz said. “A lot of the outdoor campaigns are plotted based on (the commutes) of executives and agents. It’s outdoor for outdoor’s sake.”

But in a summer movie season in which box office pundits are panicking over sluggish ticket sales, studios are waging fierce marketing battles in the streets of major cities, not just on rooftop signs but across a wide array of outdoor venues — bus shelters, construction sites, the flanks of office towers and all forms of public transportation.

IT’S HARD to question the efficacy of a single advertising platform for a film that generated more than $200 million worldwide in its first six days of release. But here’s a question for Paramount: What was the thinking behind those creepy “War of the Worlds” billboards?

One might expect the outdoor ads, planned last fall — well before Tom Cruise’s recent media rampage – to showcase the town’s most bankable star.

Not so, says Paramount marketing prexy Gerry Rich.

“Tom was the focus from beginning to end of the TV spots,” Rich said. The idea behind the outdoor campaign, he says, was to create an icon easily translated to venues around the world. “Most Spielberg movies are sold as big event films with an iconic image,” Rich says. Think the touching fingertips of “E.T.” or the empty highway bathed in the mystical glow of a descending spaceship from “Close Encounters.”

“You see faces of actors on every billboard,” Rich said.

Sony tried a similar trick with “Bewitched,” decapitating Nicole Kidman and Will Ferrell in a series of high-concept billboards whose center of gravity wasn’t an actor’s face but a broom.

What matters, Rich said, is “the gestalt of all the marketing elements.”

BILLBOARDS CAME OF AGE around the same time as the movie industry. In 1932, according to the recent book “Buyways: Billboards, Automobiles and the American Landscape,” Paramount erected a billboard shaped like a giant book on Wilshire Boulevard, with pages advertising Harold Lloyd, Marx Brothers and Marlene Dietrich movies. The studio even hired live models who blew trumpets and turned the pages from hour to hour.

These days, outdoor ad giants like Viacom and Clear Channel are experimenting with remote-control digital billboards whose ad copy can change on a dime.

Sadly, the “Wedding Crashers” billboards don’t come with live models.

But Schwartz says his billboards, with their cocky shots of Vince Vaughn and Owen Wilson, have other assets.

“We saw how gloomy and dark all the upcoming movies were — ‘The Island’ and ‘Stealth’ and ‘War of the Worlds.’ We’ve got two guys here with their game faces on, and we put them against a white background. They’re not on a broom with their heads cut off.”

(Hard Sell is a new weekly column about marketing and advertising.)

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