<body> Public Ad Campaign: Public Media Space - Billboard Regulation History and New Possibilities
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Thursday, January 13, 2011

Public Media Space - Billboard Regulation History and New Possibilities

After reading Mr. Biermann's paper, the Battle of LA, I was struck by two passages that brought me to two other papers Mr. Biermann referenced in his work. One was Judging the Aesthetics of Billboards, by David Burnett and the other Property in the Horizon: The Theory and Practice of Sign and Billboard Regulation, by Jacob Loshin. The first details the history of the sign, its seemingly inevitable metamorphosis into outdoor advertising, public discontent, and subsequent legal strategies dealing with its regulation. The second more closely examines New Haven Connecticut's relationship to signs through the land use issues associated with erecting signage. Mr. Loshin promotes a moderate middle path to regulation based on private nuisance lawsuits, (civic backlash) appropriate taxation, and other light zoning restrictions in order to balance the nuisance costs (detrimental affect to public welfare) with the prevention costs, (neglecting business' public access) thus enabling us to balance the unwanted use of public space with the needs and rights of private landowners to use their property for outdoor advertising purposes. Interestingly the second paper, concentrating on a largely rural environment, raises some interesting reasons for why billboards in our cities should be defined differently from those that litter our roadways and commercial oases.
Mr. Loshin's moderate conclusion (understandably as he is a lawyer and not an activist) is based largely on the notion that commercial signage has some important reasons for existing, mostly associated with its informational value, and therefore should be allowed under 1st amendment law in which the consumer has the right to consumer information like any other form of speech. This potential benefit is then weighed against the more abstract public nuisance and aesthetic issues which often define anti billboard regulation. Since the aesthetic nuisance is spread thin amongst a population of many, particularly on highways, the negative costs for each individual might not add up to the benefit associated with the information gained as well as very real need a business might have to attract customers along such thoroughfares. How then are we to allow the sort of zealotry associated with early anti billboard campaigners like the Scenic Sisters who sought total control of outdoor advertising for the virtuous and maybe selfish goals of scenic beauty or visual order?
I don't exactly know and truthfully, highway billboard advertising is not something I've spent a lot of time thinking about. In fact, Mr. Loshin makes some pretty persuasive arguments for the continued existence of outdoor advertising, albeit with some regulatory machinery in place enacted by local governments, or those most affected by individual signage issues. This notion of locality culminates in a Robert C. Ellickson quote recognizing that, "The placement and character of signs may depend to some extent on the informal norms that govern relationships between neighbors. The more tight-knit a community is, the less likely neighbors will perpetrate visual offenses on each other." In other words, a highway system might not constitute a viable community and therefore not coalesce with a unified response against infringing commercial signage. On the other hand a healthy tight-knit community will more likely respond to such infractions, seeing them as offenses to the community as a whole by an outside force, while simultaneously ostracizing those within the community who perpetrate unwanted visual offenses. Tight knit communities becoming the control mechanism able to judge the appropriateness of certain behaviors within a given space, in this case the erection of commercial signage.
What is interesting to me about this statement is that it draws a relationship between the collective voice of a community and the fight against external, non community based intrusions. The more closely knit a community, the more likely they are fight intrusion from outside parties and ultimately the more agency they have as a collective whole. I think it is obvious we want to promote nieghborhoodliness and community in our cities as there are clear social benefits to each. If a neighborhood is overrun by commercial signage this may not mean that there is no community, but a neighborhoods ability to fight the intrusion of commercial signage does speak to their collective abilities and community cohesiveness. While this does seem to be a over broad statement, the fact that there is even a grain of truth in it intrigues me. One might expect urban communities with a proliferation of commercial signage to be fractured or otherwise under stresses which outweigh concerns over visual blight and corporate thievery of public mental space. In this way, outdoor advertising can in some instances be used to judge the level of social cohesion in a particular area.
The first paper by David Burnett, interested me for different reasons. Taking us through the history of urban signage, Mr. Burnett follows the judiciary rulings over the past 125 some years that have reflected public opinions and thus the courts attitude towards sign regulation. Up until 1981 with the groundbreaking case of Metromedia vs San Diego, anti-billboard activists and the courts relied on aesthetic degradation of our public landscapes to challenge the billboard industries rampant growth. This was often tied up in the notion that aesthetics were an important part of social welfare and billboards that ruined the aesthetic qualities of our cities and country were violating public safety because of it. The 1981 ruling was one of the first instances where protection of commercial speech rights under 1st amendment law began to break down this accepted defense to commercial infestation. Sadly, this ruling now reflects the norm when it comes to outdoor advertising cases and was a major setback for billboard control. But that's not what interests me.
What I find compelling is that aesthetics are still used as an argument when anti billboard sentiment runs high. Take the Equinox gym debacle in the west village last year. Neighbors abhorred the billboard mostly for aesthetic reasons, and it was quickly removed. My question is in a city littered with signs of all kinds, graffiti, street art, murals, architecture, and eventually Augmented realities, can we still claim stake to our pastoral desires or quaint neighborhood conditions? My answer is no, particularly for the fact that I think media production of all kinds has a positive affect on our cities shared environment regardless of the aesthetics of the media production. Communication and dialogues created by the constant processing of public information enlivens the streets and the people who walk them. While this might seem like an endorsement for outdoor advertising, it is not. A distinct difference between public media and private media must be established and it is for this reason that we should argue against commercial media, not aesthetics.
If tight knit communities can prevent commercial media from entering their boundaries, the question is why might they do so? In today's world most outdoor advertising, and commercial media has little informational value other than brand recognition. While some scholars have argued that brand recognition is informational value, I disagree and therefore see most outdoor advertising as aggressive showmanship that holds little cultural worth and embodies few of the morals we as a public would like to promote for our shared culture. Therefore, I would rather not have these images enter my neighborhood not because they are ugly, but rather that they are imposing upon me a negative psychological affect and are therefore a visual offense to me. Speaking to this point, Mr. Loshin illuminates how private property does not automatically bestow property owners complete control over their property. In some instances the affects their property use has on the public are taken into consideration when determining how property can be used.
"...when we speak of property in the horizon, we are speaking of an entirely different resource than property in land. The unavoidable fact of signs is that they simultaneously “use” the land on which they rest and the land against which they abut. Since the principle of “use” cannot distinguish between the claims of either landowner, we are left with two options. Either we accept that ownership (distinguished from use) of land confers ownership in that land’s piece of the horizon, or we treat the horizon as a scarce public resource, the use of which should be determined by a separate set of rules. On this question, the analogy to pollution helps us clarify the nature of signs, and suggests the superiority of the latter approach. Since the horizon is more than the sum of its parts, there is a potential for landowners to overuse it. As signs proliferate, landowners deplete the resource of an uncluttered horizon, and thereby impose external costs on others. The problem with signs is not that they extract benefits from a publicly-provided roadway. Rather, like pollution, the problem is that they impose external costs by depleting a natural resource that is in some sense claimed by the public – the horizon."
Rather than aesthetics, public safety, or commercial free speech, billboard regulation should come down to the potential negative affects this media has on our communities and culture. As we have seen, commercial media might be an indication of fractured communities which is problematic, but it also can surely be seen as a wing of manipulative capitalism, altering our wants and desires without our full understanding. In todays commercially overburdened culture, it is hard to get people to understand this fact, but this might be the most important distinction that we can impart to people. We may be imbedded deep within a commercial culture, but our ability and interest in resisting this culture could be the key to keeping our shared identity intact in an environment trying to individualize our experience and make us pay attention to ourselves more than each other.
I would like to personally thank Mr. Loshin for taking the time to speak with me over the phone. While we did not come to any hard conclusions about advertising's affect on our collective psyche, this is the question I am most interested in. In order to confront the outdoor advertising problem, it is this issue of psychological detriment that to me holds the most water and will be the most successful when arguing against the encroachment of commercial media on our shared public spaces.


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