Billboards are an unethical industry.I went to the JCDecaux site to harvest some juicy weasle-wording about how they care about the neighbourhoods they deface. But there is none. They have a whole section on ‘ethics’ and ‘sustainability’ but they limit the scope of these sections to the usual, ‘corporate social responsibility’ nonsense about being fair to suppliers and using bamboo wherever they can. Nothing about their responsibility to the communities (sorry, “audiences”) they profit from. It’s exactly like the tobacco companies, denying the obvious for decades while pointing to the pretty pictures behind the elephant in the room. Here’s the truth: There is no ethical way to run an outdoor advertising empire (except maybe to limit your sites to airports and stadiums, where people kind of opt in by agreeing to attend a commercially-funded experience). I didn’t agree to attend to your marketing. I just went outside. Oh wait. There is one line, buried under a pile of off-the-shelf PR piffle: “…we ensure that each product is built to the highest quality and in keeping with the local landscape and heritage. ” And this one line – the only reference on the entire JCDecaux site to the social and environmental impact of their business – is a patent lie. Look at the photos. The Rosslyn Park billboards are taller than the houses they obscure. The “local landscape” consists of trees. Please, JC, explain to me in your best PR voice: In what way is a pair of waste-dump-sized, backlit whisky ads “in keeping with” trees? In the same way, I imagine, as a loud fart is “in keeping with” Barber’s Adagio for Strings. Or a Donald Trump hotel is “in keeping with” Buckingham Palace (actually, these two probably are of similar ethical and aesthetic lineage but don’t get me started).
Compare these two photosOne is the sketch that the spammers used to sell the ‘discrete’ billboards to the local planners and community: The other is the picture they show potential advertisers, bragging about prominence, impact and ‘unmissability’: That’s how unethical commerce works: showing one face to planners and communities while showing the opposite to advertisers keen to profit from those communities.
Billboards are the opposite of content marketingOne reason I hate outdoor advertising so much is that it’s the exact opposite of content marketing:
- Instead of offering value, it grabs value and gives nothing back to the audience.
- Instead of earning attention the hard way, it tries to buy it.
- Instead of asking people to engage, it interrupts their lives and shouts in their faces.
Beyond NIMBYismYes, the Rosslyn Park billboards are in my back yard. And yes, I’d like them to be taken down (I just discovered a campaign to try to make that happen — do sign the petition if you agree). But the issue is much bigger than one site spoiled by one set of billboards. This is about whether any property owner should have the right to sell our visual environment for profit. If that’s okay, sit back and enjoy. If not, maybe there are things we can do about it. It’s not impossible:
- Sao Paolo, a city of 11 million people, banned outdoor advertising in 2006 and it made a dramatic impact on the lives of all residents. (It’s creeping back now, with JCDecaux-backed clocks. Bastards.)
- Vermont banned billboards in 1968. Because Vermont is too pretty for 90-foot-high product shots. Maine, Hawaii and Alaska are also billboard-free.
- Now, as the Guardian reports in a great article, “Can Cities Kick Ads?”, serious movements have started in Tehran, Paris and New York to ban outdoor advertising. Grenoble, France was the first city in Europe to ban billboards.
What we can do about billboardsAs marketers, we can avoid doing outdoor advertising. As agencies, we can advise our clients to switch their budgets to media that doesn’t spam. As citizens, we can complain to our local councils about allowing any landlord to profit from visual pollution. And as consumers, we can avoid brands that spam us in any medium. If enough of us did that, things would change.
Some links Signlaw.com – Information on laws and court rulings about outdoor advertising in the US. The Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight – sensible folks. Scenic America – “The only national nonprofit that helps citizens safeguard the scenic qualities of America’s roadways, countryside and communities.” The Outdoor Advertising Association of America – Spam Central Station Traffic Safety and Digital Signs Independent report on digital billboards and their impact on traffic safety. (It ain’t good).