If you live in London, Manchester, Birmingham or one of Britain’s other big cities, you may have encountered the work of Brandalism over the last couple of weeks. This month teams of ‘subvertisers’ took to the streets in hi-vis jackets, opened up the advertising hoardings on 360 bus-stops, and replaced the posters with artwork.
This sort of thing is nothing new, and if I’m honest some of the anti-corporate messages feel more jaded than the adverts that are usually there. But at its best the exercise is thought-provoking and worthwhile. When you crack open a bus-stop hoarding, you crack open an interesting debate too – who owns public space, and who gets to put their message there?
The average Londoner sees an estimated 3,500 adverts of one sort or another every day as they go about their daily lives. It makes commercial messaging far more pervasive than any other concerns. As Neil Boorman points out, if we replaced all those ads with religious messages, we’d think we were being brainwashed.
The saturation of advertising normalises behaviour and reinforces certain viewpoints, both reflecting and creating culture. The messages we surround ourselves with matters.
Advertising also has implications for the character of our public spaces. Inevitably, it is global brands that buy more advertising, and on bigger billboards. Those same companies are buying billboard space in Johannesburg or San Francisco or Marseilles. The more space is given over to advertising in a city, the more its local distinctiveness is undermined.
That’s not to say advertising should be banned, but it should be open to discussion. The dominance of commercial interests in our public space should not be unchallenged. There are plenty of ways of limiting the impact, featuring a more diverse range of messages, or using advertising space more creatively. Ad space could be offered to artists or charities, or made available to local businesses at a discounted rate. Many towns already limit the size and positioning of billboards to avoid visual clutter.
Famously, Sao Paulo banned almost all outdoor advertising a few years ago, but they didn’t keep the ban entirely. The door has been opened again for advertising on their terms. Companies can create ads on the side of buildings, but they have to be murals, not billboards – that turns them into works of art, creating opportunities for local artists. With the visual medium closed to them, advertisers didn’t pack up and sign on at the job centre. They had to be more creative, and hosted more events and stunts, or ran more participative campaigns, especially on social media. The limits to advertising remain popular in Sao Paulo, and their experience shows just one way to negotiate a healthier and more public spirited approach to advertising.