What really fits the bill(board)?
Who controls public spaces and culture? Activist groups like Brandalism and the AdFree Cities Network argue that corporate culture has now taken over, trading funding for cash-starved councils for the right to take control of the visual environment in which we live.
Contrary to the popular saying, familiarity breeds trust rather than contempt, and brands will pay handsomely to be the most familiar and therefore favoured purchase choice by consumers. That’s why advertisements have been writ large, first on buildings themselves – you can still see early 20th century advertisements fading on historic buildings around the country – and later on billboards, at bus stops and elsewhere. They feed into a culture of consumerism, help shape public opinion, and arguably direct attention towards things corporations want us to see while deflecting attention away from things we might take issue with. Electronic billboard displays are also guzzle electricity at an alarming rate, raising serious questions over their sustainability. Critics have also attacked the inequalities, social and environmental problems created by unconstrained capitalism, including a concerted lobby against advertising by companies that rely on fossil fuels and have sought to achieve greater carbon neutrality without reducing the amount they pollute but instead reduced their calculated carbon footprint through sponsoring tree planting or other means.
This is no longer a fringe activity supported solely by rebellious artistic anarchists. Amsterdam has banned fossil fuel reliant industries from advertising on its city billboards, São Paulo in Brazil has completely banned corporate advertising, including on shop fronts, while as far back as 2014, Grenoble in France replaced its billboards with trees to create a more relaxing urban environment.
There are many ways the space billboards are built on could be used, from climbing walls to art exhibitions. The challenge in diluting or replacing commercial advertisements with cultural investments is that this costs a council money rather than supplying it, and in these straitened times with the economy taking repeated hits from Covid-19 and other socio-economic and political upheavals, this can be hard for councils to countenance. Do we want to compromise, reclaim our urban environment or sell out and exchange consumerism for private sector funding for our community services? As ever, when the problem is examined in detail, the need to pay for everything leads to a judicious trade-off between freeing ourselves from corporate influence and selling the means to influence to corporations in exchange for money to fund our social programmes: a compromise with no easy answers.