First it was São Paulo then Chennai. Then Grenoble Tehran Paris and now even New York have spawned movements to replace or ban outdoor advertising. Are we entering the age of ad-free cities – or is this just an eye-catching distraction?
Something seemed strange. Staring out of a hotel window in São Paulo my eye was caught by an oversized digital display crowning the top of an undersized skyscraper. Steadily flashing the time then the temperature the display was incongruous in a way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on.
It was only later when a colleague mentioned that São Paulo had banned billboard advertising that I realised what had felt so odd about my view. Those flashing numbers were the only visible signage actively making a play for my attention. Having come from New York I was used to looking out at a landscape of logos and gargantuan product shots; a vista of advertisements all jostling for ‘eyeballs’ as the industry so charmingly puts it.
Left unchecked the proliferation of outdoor advertising can consume a city. In the early 2000s advertising grew exponentially in Brazil and São Paulo began to suffocate under a smog of signage. Finding it difficult to control the number of ads through regulation the city took the unprecedented step of banning them altogether.
In 2007 Mayor Gilberto Kassab implemented the Clean City Law – labelling outdoor adverts a form of ‘visual pollution’. In a single year the city removed 15,000 billboards and 300,000 oversized storefront signs.