I've been following the billboard ban issue in California over the last year or so, so it was kind of interesting when I saw a news item last week about a new documentary to hit the Dallas Film Festival later this year (April 12-22). This film made its worldwide debut at New York's Documentary Festival back in November 2011. "This Space Available" is a documentary about Sao Paulo and other movements to rid cities of billboards. (More info about the film can be found here.)
In This Space Available, filmmaker Gwenaëlle Gobé brings to life stories of people from around the world who are fighting to reclaim their public spaces from what they term "visual pollution"—aka billboards, building wraps, etc. In the film, she lays the blame with both the advertising industry and the entire generation of Baby Boomers "whose consumption-based culture has implicated them in the environmental fallout. She argues that it's her generation left to do the cleaning up that is now leading the fight back."
There is history and laws behind the banning of billboards, going back to the 1960s. For example, the Highway Beautification Act of 1965 was designed to regulate outdoor advertising on America's roadways, but Gobé says that enforcement of the law has continued to erode over time. Additionally, some public space activists face penalties for covering outdoor ads with art while at the same time some officials ignore illegally erected billboards.
We've seen some of this hit home here in the US with the recent Los Angeles ban on billboards and also the Houston 1980 ban on billboards. Should billboards be banned? Is it "visual pollution" or is it something else? Should it be an all or nothing kind of affair? It would certainly be hard to imagine Times Square in NYC devoid of all manner of billboards—traditional and electronic.
On one side of the coin, I can understand not wanting to stare at advertising all the time or have one of the electronic billboards blinking just outside my bedroom window as I'm trying to go to sleep. But on the other hand, don't companies have the option to advertise their products and services in a variety of ways? Billboards and building wraps are part of those advertising avenues. And in our industry, billboards and outdoor advertising make up a large percentage of work for sign and graphics shops. What if that work was to go away? What would happen then? And I have to say that on a road trip it is certainly helpful to know there's a Cracker Barrel or McDonalds at one of the upcoming exits when you're in a dead zone for cellular service.
Interestingly, in an article in Financial Times (September 6, 2010) speaking about the billboard ban in Sao Paulo (which happened in 2006), Anna Freitag, marketing manager of Hewlett-Packard Brazil was quoted. In the article she said, "A billboard is media on the road. In rational purchases it means less effectiveness...as people are involved in so many things that it makes it difficult to execute the call to action," she says. "HP decided to go deeper and understand consumer behavior – the path to purchase, and place media in this direction...The internet and social media are the big trends associated with point of sale presence." (Read the FT article here.)
So where do you draw the line? Is there a middle ground? Should billboards be banned or do they have a place as part of our outdoor landscape? Thoughts?