I love this: a new city law in Sao Paulo, Brazil's largest city (11 million people), will go into effect on January 1st and ban practically all outdoor advertising: billboards, neon signs, electronic displays, ads on the sides of buses and taxis, even distribution of flyers. The dimension of store signs will be regulated, and the only format that won't be prohibited will be banners trailed by airplanes - on a technicality: the federal government, not the city, controls the airspace.
By all means that's a radical measure, and one that - according to a story in the Herald Tribune - is creating a sharp debate there. But apparently Sao Paulo tried to regulate outdoor ads before, in a more nuanced way, and it didn't work: most of the 13'000 outdoor billboards are installed illegally, and "none of the accords and agreements we reached with the ad sector were ever complied with", the mayor Gilberto Kassab is quoted as saying. So they decided to go all the way. The law was approved by a vote of 45 to 1 in the City Council in September, the 1 being an advertising executive. It is "a rare victory of the public interest over private, of order over disorder, aesthetics over ugliness, of cleanliness over trash", says author Roberto Pompeu de Toledo.
"What we are aiming for is a complete change of culture", says the president of the Sao Paulo City Council, Roberto Tripoli, even if "some people are going to have to pay a price" - job losses in the ad industry for example.
I'm totally sympathetic to this, not because I have something against advertising, but because outdoors ads have assumed even in well-regulated countries like Switzerland, and even more so in countries like Brazil, the character of visual pollution. Ads are seeping into every inch of public space. Building-size billboards are becoming commonplace. This is the picture that the Herald Trib published to illustrate its story:
Times Square in NY or the Ginza district in Tokyo or Piccadilly Circus in London are of course a different story. They live by billboards. That's their architectural substance and their sociocultural raison d'être. take the billboards and the lights away and they will become dull places - it would be interesting to have some graphic artist create a rendering of Times Square "ad-naked", to see how it would/could look. But otherwise, the visual experience of cities - including historic cities - has been gradually diminished by oversized, ubiquitous, intruding billboards and other ad forms.
A small personal anecdote: Last year a similar giant billboard went up in Lugano, a small city in Southern Switzerland. It's a gorgeous lakeside town, surrounded by hills, a postcard-type tourist attraction. The billboard covered the facade of a building under renovation on the lakeside. It showed a race motorcyclist and the logo of his sponsor. Seen from a boat on the lake, that's the first thing you would notice of Lugano: great for the advertiser, and for the building's owner, who got some money, but emblematic of the sensory overload that big billboards are causing, to the point of canceling out all else. Again last year, in Milan (Italy) Motorola paid 50'000 euros to project for five evenings the 26-story-high image of a cell phone on the Pirellone, the seat of the regional government. The building, a skyscraper designed by architect Giò Ponti in the 1960s, had just been renovated. I think the money went to charity, but the event turned a major city landmark into a banal commercial surface. Just a few weeks ago, again in Milan, a gigantic billboard with Madonna (the singer) playing testimonial for a clothes brand went up on the scaffolding around the Duomo, probably the greatest example of late gothic architecture in Italy. Inappropriate, you say?
Sao Paulo's lead may be followed by other cities. I read somewhere recently that the city of Rome has started forcing advertisers to take down billboards in historic neighborhoods such as Piazza Navona.
UPDATE 20 Dec 06 - A reader just e-mailed me a link to this site: "Four [US] states currently ban billboards: Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont. It is no accident that these four states are known for their scenic beauty. Businesspeople in these states recognize that an unmarred landscape promotes tourism and benefits them in the long run. Billboard bans also level the playing field between local businesses and national chains in at least one advertising medium. Two states [Rhode Island and Oregon] have prohibited the construction of new billboards and a handful of communities have chosen to cap on the number of billboards that can be constructed".
And another pointed me to this delicious ongoing controversy in Florida about billboards' "viewing zones" and the trees that allegedly block said view (it's a collection of texts: one points to an idiotic bill introduced in the state House by a Republican official that would "prohibit local governments from blocking the view of a billboard with a tree").