Why outdoor advertising is not just a visual amenity

The French city of Grenoble recently decided to ban outdoor advertising, thereby fulfilling its new Green party mayor’s pre-election promise.

Or rather they banned its billboards, since the city is locked into its street furniture contract for five more years. In the process it is voluntarily turning its back on revenues of half a million euros annually contributed by outdoor advertising, in favour of… trees. More trees will take the place of billboards, and in the process the city will be “reclaiming its public spaces”.

“The municipality is taking the choice of freeing public space in Grenoble from advertising to develop areas for public expression,” said the office of Eric Piolle.

The whole thing has an echo of Sao Paulo, which famously cancelled all outdoor advertising in 2006, reacting to what had in all honesty become a very cluttered and messy environment.

The resultant wasteland with advertising structures but no imagery was not much of an improvement, it must be said. So in 2012 the city relented and put out a tender for 2000 digital advertising faces which also display the time, temperature and air quality.

Could a ban, temporary or permanent, happen here?

There have been rumbles, in Bristol and elsewhere, to push through a similar initiative. These tend to be grassroots campaigns started out by left-leaning activists concerned about the pernicious effects of aspirational advertising on a cash-strapped and harassed public.

But they haven’t gathered pace. Bristol achieved 831 signatures on its online petition to ban outdoor advertising structures. Exeter achieved 185 – one person in every 600 or so.

Dear reader, I spirit you now to Edinburgh, where following the transfer of the city’s street furniture contract from Clear Channel to JCDecaux this summer, and months of fruitless negotiations with the city to effect a handover of their shelters, Clear Channel took the law into its own hands and removed three shelters overnight.

What a hoo-hah then ensued, with irate Councillors and a cold wet public up in arms – 'their' shelters had been stolen!

Because that’s how it feels: the public has an inviolate right to safe, clean, dry, well-lit and well-maintained shelters. And a bit of advertising is a small price to pay.

It’s a pretty decent value exchange for shoppers, passengers and the general public, as well as for the asset owners who are improving their ambience with slick and bright new signage, provided at no cost.

Take the London Underground. It would be a forbidding grey and unwelcoming place without the visual splash of colour and topical information that advertising brings. And in the same way, the joy of standing waiting for a bus on a windswept street in the rain would wear off pretty quickly – I can imagine the gestures of “public expression” to which M. Piolle refers.

We have come a long way from the unregulated and cluttered days of twenty years ago. The number of roadside billboards in the UK has fallen from 35,000 at the turn of the millennium to 19,000 now, as the media owners drive for quality not quantity.

In a recent YouGov survey conducted by the OMC to gauge public opinions about outdoor advertising, four in ten people of the nationally representative sample acknowledged that advertising helps subsidise public amenities and keeps the cost of public transport down.

Half of older people – with memories of how it used to be – stated that outdoor advertising looked better than it used to, and more than half the sample agreed that it can be clever, humorous and entertaining. That’s a pretty tolerant and supportive attitude by the UK public to outdoor advertising generally.

The OMC estimates that its members invest £50m in iconic and well-designed advertising structures each and every year.

That’s a confident bet on outdoor’s future, and a financial commitment which has created some spectacular and sometimes awesome sites at the roadside as well as in stations, malls and airports.

It’s been necessary to modernise the plant and provide advertisers with the latest in design and presentation display, of course.

But it’s certainly not cheap. If cities want to erect and maintain their own structures in future, they may be shocked at the costs.

I don’t think even Grenoble wants to take on that burden, and trees only provide a little shelter.

Mike Baker, chief executive, Outdoor Media Centre

Tel: 020 7224 3786

Email: mbaker@outdoormediacentre.org.uk

Web: www.outdoormediacentre.org.uk

Twitter: @Outdoormc