What three billboards outside Center City say about advertising to neighborhoods

These ads for the Philadelphia branch of the Cochran Firm appear in at least three different neighborhoods in the city.

Johnnie L. Cochran Jr. has been dead since 2005, but his face looms large over Philadelphia neighborhoods, thanks to billboards advertising the law firm he founded 40 years ago.

Cochran was best known for successfully defending O.J. Simpson against homicide charges and saying the now-famous phrase: “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” But his Los Angeles-based firm specializes in medical malpractice and personal injury law, and it now operates two dozen branches across the country, one of which is in Center City.

Over the last several months, at least three billboards have popped up in Philadelphia neighborhoods advertising the Cochran Firm’s services, but with a notable distinction. Each billboard is neighborhood-specific. For example, an ad that appears in Logan reads, “Fighting for Logan.”

Experts in advertising said the hyper-local nature of these ads could represent a broader strategy: appealing to a consumer’s neighborhood allegiance through “geotargeting.” While geotargeting — the idea of delivering different content based on location — is often used in reference to digital advertising, companies are applying the same principle to physical advertising, like billboards.

“It’s become more prevalent in traditional because of the digital targeting,” said Cory Lorenz, vice president of media for the Philadelphia-based communications firm DDCworks, “because people are thinking more that way.”

Cochran also has billboards in Grays Ferry and Nicetown (though the “Nicetown” billboard stands on Wissahickon Avenue above the Roosevelt Expressway, which some might consider Fernhill or Germantown). The Cochran Firm didn’t respond to interview requests, so it’s unclear whether there are additional billboards in other neighborhoods.

Joseph Glennon, an assistant professor in the department of advertising at Temple University, said the firm likely made a conscious decision to target those neighborhoods based on demographic research. Glennon, whose background is in ad copy writing, said calling out the name of the neighborhood in the billboard makes sense.

“You have an out-of-towner trying to establish themselves as their local ally,” he said. “It makes it sound like Johnnie Cochran’s going to be walking up and down the avenue.”

Camera icon Anna Orso
Cochran Firm ads targeting specific neighborhoods have popped up in multiple locations in Philadelphia. This one is on Grays Ferry Avenue.

The response might be different, he said, if what the firm was selling was unhealthy or detrimental to the community. For example, tobacco companies have long been criticized for targeting their advertising at low-income neighborhoods. Fast-food restaurants and companies that sell sugary beverages have faced similar criticism.

But a law firm isn’t selling cigarettes or candy bars, and so, Glennon said, the neighborhood-level targeting, based on demographics or not, is no different from targeting a New Jersey audience with a billboard near the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. It comes from the same principle as engaging higher-income consumers with commercials during the Oscars.

This specific targeting has gone on for decades in physical advertising, though Lorenz said it’s possible some advertisers are thinking about it more today because of the ease with which it can be done in digital spaces. For example, Facebook allows advertisers to woo certain demographics in neighborhoods or smaller locales, while Snapchat allows for “geofencing,” in which advertisers can draw a line around a specific area and target only that spot. Lorenz said his firm has used this feature to go after areas as distinct as the location of a single conference.

He said 90 percent of what the firm puts out is hyper-targeted by locale or demographic, “especially on the digital side, because it can be.”

“The tagline we’re using is, ‘We want to hit the right person at the right time with the right message,'” Lorenz said. “This type of strategy really feeds into that philosophy.”

David Neff, president of the Old City-based communications firm Neff Associates, said technology has allowed for more geotargeting options, and a law firm using the same principle in an outdoor ad — even if it isn’t called geotargeting — is more likely to resonate than a more generic ad because “the advertiser is showing sensibility toward the local community.”

“It wouldn’t surprise me if its derivation was from digital advertising, but geotargeting is geotargeting,” Neff said. “Outdoor advertising in a specific neighborhood, that’s geotargeting, just like I’m serving up ads to find people online in a specific zip code.”