Publi-City or No Publi-City?
As duly noted by Design Observer, there lies an ambiguity in the freshly-Academy-awarded short film Logorama. At once seducing us into a nostalgic admiration for the craft of graphic design while warning us of the cataclysmic dangers of corporate domination, the animation could be said to have its real-world equivalent in what was once the billboard-infested city of São Paulo before passing its history-making anti-billboard law three years ago. In an age where buildings have become billboards themselves and consumerism has reached its peak, it’s worth taking a look at the case of São Paulo and asking: Publi-City or No Publi-City?
In the U.S., laws limiting billboards began with the Highway Beautification Act in 1965. Since then, states of Vermont (in 1968), Alaska (in 1959), Hawaii (in 1927), and Maine (in 1979) have prohibited billboards. In South America, the city of Buenos Aires also had a similar plan to reduce visual pollution. But in 2007, the world’s fourth-largest metropolis and Brazil’s most important city, São Paulo, became the first city outside of the communist world to put into effect a radical, near-complete ban on outdoor advertising.
Called the Clean City Law, the ban was enacted by the city’s conservative mayor, Gilberto Kassab, who claimed the policy “came from a necessity to combat pollution . . . pollution of water, sound, air, and the visual. We decided that we should start combating pollution with the most conspicuous sector – visual pollution.” Surveys purportedly measured at least a 70 percent approval rating among city residents.
Advertisers estimate that they removed 15,000 billboards and that more than 1,600 signs and 1,300 towering metal panels were dismantled by authorities, who issued nearly $8 million in fines in enforcing the new law. As often happens, however, crisis opened a window of opportunity, and a new digital model of advertising was born, restricted to commercial locations and public transport services. In an interview with TIME in 2008, Kassab said, “if success is possible fighting visual pollution, then solutions are viable for other types of pollution and for problems such as health, education, transport, sewage treatment and housing.”
On the upside, it gives a city the chance to reclaim its urban identity, its residents the opportunity to rediscover the architectural fabric; reference points once again become buildings or spaces rather than logos or trademarks. With tax cuts given as an incentive for urban renewal, delapidated buildings before concealed were given a much-needed make-over in São Paulo, historical landmarks restored to their original splendor. According to Vinicius Galvao in an NPR interview, the São Paulo reporter said the ban had also exposed social issues, giving favelas and illegal sweatshops greater visibility and thus greater attention.
On the other hand, what of advertising as freedom of expression or even as an art form? In a Businessweek article, local designer Gustavo Piqueira–aside from being skeptical that the law would last and criticizing authorities for leaving behind a “billboard cemetery”–pointed out unforseen loopholes such as poor people accepting cash from advertisers to place posters outside their homes, and how such a ban could threaten the historical and cultural wealth of “vernacular” signage from small businesses–to which the city assures the protection of certain public information and cultural works.
Implementing what in current society is such a drastic and unconventional measure–banning the very lifeblood of the global economy in the public realm–wouldn’t be without its imperfections. Assuming the genuine intentions of the ‘cleaner city’ plan and its implicit commitment to preserving culture, finding means of minimizing ‘visual pollution’ is just as logical as countering noise, air, water or any other form of pollution . Of course, subjectivity comes into play if some equate visual pollution to aesthetic vibracy…for what is a metropolis without the lights and flashing neon signs? New York without Times Square? Tokyo minus Ginza? It’s a valid question, though I don’t see why you could’t have the glitz without the force-fed propaganda. Enter street art, public art installations and urban interventions.
But even if the consequences were only positive, outright banning can be a tricky subject in a capitalist and “democratic” society. After all, limits like these are more often interpreted as an explicit violation of basic freedoms rather than as protection from corporate interests, a buffer to excessive consumerism or an initiative for urban renewal. Which is why the legislation has had to adapt to the system and is gradually stretching to allow certain kinds of publicity in specific places like bus stops, newsstands, outdoor street clocks and public bathrooms. Some think this will force ad agencies to become more inventive, in order to develop outdoor media that does not interfere so much in the physical structure of the city.
It’s interesting to see both the pros and cons of an anti-billboard law in effect in such a cosmopolitan city. According to the various articles cited here, the response of citizens was largely positive, and people like Brazilian designer Tony de Marco–whose photographs of São Paulo-sans-billboards was turned into an exhibition and has even inspired an advert for Sky Movies–claimed “to see my city clean was my best birthday present and my photos were the record of the feast”.
While public policy figures out how to effectively and fairly regulate the corporate presence in the public space while preserving the graphic arts and stimulating the economy, we as city dwellers await for new and exciting ways to experience the urban landscape. Perhaps we’ll see the day when the glitz and glamour of a city doesn’t have *trademark* written all over it.