Ban Outdoor Advertising - Via the Guardian
A recent article in the Guardian written by Neal Lawson inspired this post. The article is a pretty straight forward attempt to argue that the public should be weary of a shared environment riddled with advertising. In fact it points to some of the same arguments I also brought to bear on the topic as I began to wonder early on if an outdoor advertising rich public environment could be fought. That main argument is choice. With the negative affects of the desire machine relatively well understood, one would imagine that opting out of the onslaught of psychologically abusive imagery should be high on our priority list. Not so. Mr. Lawson goes on to point out the very small number of cities and states around the world which have chosen to take such bold action. Outdoor advertising, for all its unavoidable pandering to our basest emotions, is after all widely accepted as inevitable and a part of the well oiled machines we call cities. How this came to be is less about the publics lack of determination, ability to stand ground against monolithic commercial forces, but rather failure to articulate the problem at hand. After all there has not been a serious unified resistance to the abusive corporate regimes that call themselves the OOH advertising industry. And why should there be? To many the problem is an insignificant blip on their political radar. Yes, advertising is bad and can cause serious emotional depression and physical health issues, It has been shown to increase your self interest while decreasing your ability to sympathize with others. And yes, there are correlations between advertising consumption and economic stability which would make you very uneasy as you let the prime-time advertising wash over you, your wife, and your 2.5 children happily nestled on the couch, remote in hand, enthralled by the latest Dramedy, in a house that you don't own yet. But the lack of conversation around these issues is astounding and one cannot expect the public to demand the end to a problem they truly don't know exists.
And so many people do not consider public advertising an issue but rather a necessary outcome of living in a commercial world. An evil we must bear, if not grow to love by heralding it when it decides to donate a insignificant fraction of its business to cultural exchange our laud its behavior as part of what keeps our urban infrastructure intact. Listening to some OOH advertisers you would think our bridges would crumble and the island of manhattan would sink beneath the waves without the strong economic arm of the ad industry to prop it up. We seem not only to ignore the negative issues associated with surrounding ourselves with images that promote conspicuous consumption but more and more we have been programed to justify its existence as integral to what a city is. In this climate it is no wonder outdoor advertising expands its hold on the facades of our buildings, and our collective consciousness.
What I found interesting about Neal's article wasn't his critique of outdoor advertising, but his understanding of the political implications of the public banning its use of our shared public spaces. He writes.
A ban would be aesthetically, culturally and environmentally right. But it's what it says about us that matters too. It would be a sign of collective and democratic power over the market. It would be a signal that says the public interest trumps private interest. That the freedom to be fully human, and not just be subjected to an endless onslaught of adverts, should come first. That we are citizens more than we are consumers."
Holy shit! "collective and democratic power over the market"? "public interest trumping private interest"? These are the words of revolution and yet all he is talking about is removing some pictures from the walls of our cities. Why is such strong language of resistance so apt in this situation?
In a gross oversimplification, David Harvey, whose lifelong interest in how cities are organized has written at length about how cities are made largely of people who lack a say in how the place they live is organized. At the heart of the outdoor advertising issue is this larger problem of creating a city environment in which each of us has agency. If outdoor advertising has a qualitative negative affect on each of us, it should be expected that we would simply call for its removal in an effort to promote our individual and collective interest and that would be that. The vinyl, wheatpaste, digital screens and the like coming down with a whimper and not a bang as the public made a decision to better its surroundings and therefor itself.
And yet this has not and will not happen in our current political climate. I have been working at this issue as an activist artist and NYC resident for nearly 10 years now with little to no progress in the right direction. (Don't worry, im not gonna jump off a bridge for lack of results to what increasingly seems like a lifelong project.) Our cities are not organized around the collective but the individual, or often corporate. The few make large policy decisions for the rest of us which often benefit them greatly and have no affect or negative affects on the rest of us. While I hate to bring the OWS and the 99% into this blog's rhetoric, it seems appropriate for this post. Our cities, to function for all of us, must include outlets for all of our voices. These outlets should not only exist but function outside of political and economic machines which can skew policies in directions which are not of our collective will.
As the article points out, citizens of Bristol have launched a campaign "Bristol: the city that said no to advertising". As they gain traction and provide a voice for this issue it will be interesting to see how the city responds. One would expect the city council to simply comply with the demands of its citizenry as that would be indicative of a council representing the publics interest and not the privates. Most likely this campaign will be met with much resistance by those whose economic interest in keeping advertising in public gives their voice more weight and a louder decibel level with which to scream their private demands, proving once again that private interest trumps public interest and not the other way around.