When in Rome I was following a journalism course, the president of the Ads Control Commission explained to us that 50% of all advertising is useless. Why then do they make so much of it, we asked. Because no one knows which 50% works and which doesn't. That is, to obtain a result the means are wasted.
He told us also why car companies stopped showing naked women in their ads. It is not for ethical Reasons – he said -, but because men got so stuck at those attractive bodies that the cars’ brand goes unnoticed. It is the use of people for commercial purposes. With graphs and numbers, he showed us how companies put tricks and lies in their ads to increase the sale of their products without worrying about the negative consequences on children’s education - the fashion slogan was, Babies, cry so that mom buys for you -, on the deformation of the female image, on the corruption of culture and other negative consequences. The more important thing is "sell, sell, sell".
This social phenomenon is today under scrutiny and criticism. An article, in English, French and Spanish,The Growing Global Movement to End Outdoor Advertising, published in Equal times, shows how this movement is positioning itself everywhere. Here we summarize some reasons for the criticism on ads, inviting to read the full text, quite long but interesting.
“With advertisements removed in Grenoble (France) you can see the city’s beauty and the mountains beyond. Adverts create obstacles. Without them you can breathe,” explains Khaled Gaiji, national mobilisation coordinator of the French anti-advertising organisation Résistance à l’Agression Publicitaire (Resistance to Advertising Aggression, or RAP). “Advertising is like an iceberg: the largest impact is below the surface. Adverts colonise our imagination.”
In 2014 Grenoble’s then newly-appointed Green mayor Éric Piolle cancelled a contract for 326 outdoor advertisements, including 64 large billboards. Trees and community noticeboards replaced them – or nothing at all.
The ad-free fervour was spread across France. There are 29 RAP groups across the country, up from five in 2016. They work autonomously with tactics including pressuring politicians like the mayor of Paris, Anne Hidalgo, who paused plans for new digital advertising boards on the city’s streets. To halt this RAP encouraged people to participate in a public consultation. Some 95% of the 2000 participants in consultation declared they were against the news digitals ads.
Gaiji, who is also president of Friends of the Earth France, says, “Grenoble stopping the advance of advertisements shows that we have a choice. It is like when people ask what has 50 years of environmental activism achieved? But, imagine how bad thing would be if [we hadn’t done anything]. We say: Action is life, silence is death”.
The anti-advertising movement is loud in France, but it has roots further afield. In 2006, São Paulo became the first place in the world to ban outdoor advertising. Then Mayor Gilberto Kassab described it as ‘visual pollution’. Within a year, 15,000 billboards were down, along with 300,000 large store signs, in South America’s largest megacity. Cities in India including New Delhi, Mumbai and Chennai have all restricted outdoor advertising. For ten days in 2015, Tehran replaced all advertising with art.
Britain’s anti-advertising clamour rises
The south-west English city of Bristol hosted the UK’s first national anti-advertising conference on 26 October 2019. Organised by Adblock Bristol, it attracted people from across the British Isles, including members of Adblock Cardiff, which was set up in Wales. Attendees from the UK’s second largest city of Birmingham set up their own group after the conference.
“Our big focus is challenging new planning applications for digital billboards, where the industry is expanding. Working with local communities we have stopped 18 new digital screens in Bristol and have successfully lobbied to have some old static billboards removed,” explains Nicola Round from Adblock Bristol.
One workshop explored how advertising drives sexism. “Advertising featuring sexualised images of perfect bodies not only encourages us to objectify and dehumanise the women pictured, it trains us to objectify all women,” Sophie Pritchard who co-ran the workshop explains.
Overall, swathes of studies link advertising with selling unhappiness, making us want things we do not need. Fighting against this, different campaigns worldwide focus on limiting specific adverts. Singapore has banned unhealthy food and drinks promotion, including on billboards, going further than similar moves in Mexico, the United Kingdom and Canada. Paris in March 2017 followed Geneva and London to ban sexist and homophobic adverts. In 2005, World Health Organization rules banned all tobacco advertising for its 168 signatories; but investigative research by the Guardian shows that big tobacco still targets children in at least 23 countries of the Global South.
“We know from planning applications that a double-sided digital bus advertisement uses the same annual energy as four households. So imagine the big ones, let alone the environmental impact of over-consumption encouraged by these advertising boards.”
Anti-advert campaigners also want to raise broader questions about environmental justice: why should impoverished areas suffering the worst air pollution – largely due to traffic – host adverts for cars out of the price range of many local people? In the end, selling more cars to motorists stuck in traffic jams only worsens air quality and climate disaster.
Reclaiming the public visual realm
More recently, carbon intense industries have been targeted, including adding cigarette-style warnings to car adverts.
“We set out to subvert the dominant narrative forced onto us by corporate advertising. It is important to reclaim the public visual realm – especially when we are being straight up lied to, as is the case with widely used greenwashing,” explains Michelle Tylicki, an artist who has collaborated with subvertisers.
In Mumbai, the NGO Chal Rang De (Let’s Go Paint) has painted houses made from corrugated iron in bright colours. Similarly, the council in Medellín, Columbia’s second city, has transformed severely impoverished neighbourhoods, suffering violence from the drugs trade, by daubing the walls with murals and providing amenities, services and hope. Likewise, in Ghanaian capital city of Accra, artist Mohammed Awudu is guiding young people to turn the informal settlement of Nima into an art city.
Nikolas Round chaired the conference’s closing session on what should replace corporate advertisements. This, she says, should be up to the local communities. “In Bristol some say more art, like the Burg Arts Project, a rolling series of art by local artists and the local community. Primarily we would like to see advertising gone, perhaps to reveal beautiful buildings. Other communities might want to plant and rewild, or paint murals. There are many ways communities could take this.”
Here you have the tree original texts