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Billboard watchdogs clean up skylines

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Vermont, Maine, Hawaii, and Alaska ban billboards outright. In Philadelphia, SCRUB (Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight) claims it has gotten the city to remove 1,000 illegal billboards. In Los Angeles, the recently formed Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight works to stem the proliferation of digital billboards. Similar efforts exist in Houston, Tucson, and other smaller US cities.

The most dramatic evidence of the antiadvertising groundswell comes from abroad. In 2007, São Paulo, Brazil, South America’s largest metropolis, banned all “off-site” advertising, and greatly restricted “on-site” signage. Some 15,000 billboards were removed under the “clean city law.” Noting widespread public support for the law, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires are considering bans of their own.

The movement takes inspiration from Jane Jacob’s 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Activists define public space as “sacrosanct,” and refer to violations of the unique character of cities by “mass market” advertising as “parasitic” and “invasive.” In some ways, their critique of consumer society is not new. But the voices are new and the context has shifted. Cities are actively reimagining themselves and their public spaces. Ideas about the commons that once belonged to the margin are increasingly mainstream. And they coincide with – and in some ways are prompted by – technological advances that promise to make outdoor advertising more ubiquitous, attention-grabbing, and better targeted than ever.

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