Brindabella Views Or Billboards? You Choose.

By Tim Hollo June 17, 2017

You know what Canberra, our beautiful bush capital, needs? More billboard advertising! Said nobody, ever…

… Except Andrew Barr, in a brief thought bubble early this year.

Unfortunately, our Chief Minister sent the idea off to a Legislative Committee inquiry and, unless a large number of Canberrans write in urgently to say it’s the last thing our city wants, we may well end up with Northbourne Avenue, Belconnen Way, the Tuggeranong Parkway and other major routes turned into versions of Sydney’s Parramatta Road.

Canberra’s largely ad-free status is one of the precious things about our city. Imagine how different the city would feel if the views of the snow-capped Brindabellas were blocked by billboards. Compared to the sensory bombardment from billboards and bus shelters and hoardings in a city like Sydney or Melbourne, our streetscapes are gentler, calmer, more human.

Where Sydney’s streets make the city a fully commercialised, deeply competitive, entirely transactional zone where people are valued only as a target market, ours nurture a friendlier, more open, more public-spirited community, more connected to the stunning natural environment we’re nestled in.

At a time when cities around the world are fighting back against advertising’s corporate takeover of public space, and winning, now is an odd time to suggest we should wind back our world-leading protections. Sao Paolo, Grenoble and Chennai are the most famous cities where billboard bans have been implemented with great success. Initiatives in Paris and New York have reduced public space advertising, though not banned it outright.

Meanwhile, increasingly passionate groups of citizens are driving a range of initiatives to reclaim public space from advertising. One delightful project called CATS – the Citizens’ Advertising Takeover Service – has crowdfunded buying out the ad space in London Underground stations, replacing the commercial messages with pictures of cats. Others are taking the law into their own hands, declaring that replacing or defacing advertising is not vandalism – it’s the ads themselves that are vandalism.

These campaigns show how unpopular advertising is, and polling consistently shows that people don’t like our public space being used to sell us things we don’t want or need. A few recent polls have shown 79% of Australians agreeing that there is too much advertising, 73% that it can’t be trusted, and 80% that it started an unrealistic depiction of Australians’ homes and lives. Eight in ten of us feel advertising bombards us with useless information. Remarkably, ad blockers are the most popular browser extension, with around half of us using one on at least one device.

Underlying that unpopularity is an understanding of how damaging advertising is. And it’s something the industry recognises. Nancy Shaley of the Shaley Agency says of her own industry “Advertising at its best is making people feel that, without their product, you’re a loser.” Jonathan Trimble, CEO of 18 Feet and Rising, says “of course advertising makes us unhappy.” And Omaid Hiwaizi of SapientNitro says “advertising is… designed to make you restless, leaving little room for contentment.”

One of the early pioneers of marketing psychology was Edward Bernays, a nephew and protégé of Freud. In his book, Propaganda, he wrote approvingly of the role of advertising in keeping a population “more docile and less subversive,” more easily governable.

There is abundant evidence that alienation and discontent is the outcome of a world filled with advertising. US psychologist Tim Kasser, who recently visited Canberra, collated much of the research that he and others have undertaken, in his book, The High Price of Materialism, and it shows a clear causative link between exposure to advertising and increased materialism which, in turn, is linked to higher rates of depression, mental illness, interpersonal violence and antisocial behaviour.

As Kasser and his colleagues show, and as the great bulk of us recognise when telling pollsters that it depicts an unrealistic picture of our lives, advertising emphasises selfish values, values of wealth and status, modelling and moulding cultural norms to present us to ourselves and each other as nothing more than consumers. The more advertising we are exposed to, the less ability we have to care for each other and our environment, and to embrace the compassionate, cooperative aspects of human nature.

Is this the kind of Canberra that we want?

Mr Barr’s publicly stated reason for this inquiry is that advertisers are already pushing the boundaries of the billboard ban, so it’s time to reevaluate it. But it’s disingenuous to point to A frames on footpaths and truck-bed advertising when it’s Mr Barr’s Government which has negotiated a deal with Adshel to build new bus shelters, introducing the biggest encroachment of advertising in our public spaces since ads hit the sides of ACTION buses.

Advertising is unhealthy, unpopular and undemocratic, handing the streets and cityscape that we all hold in common to private companies to profit from. Canberra’s existing regulations are part of what makes our city so special, setting us apart from other capitals, and putting us well ahead of the global popular push to reclaim public space.

Rather than use the encroachment of ads as a reason to back down and let more in, we should enforce the rules better, apply them more consistently, and celebrate what we have managed to protect.

Submissions to the Inquiry into Billboards close on June 20.

Read: The Green Institute’s submission to Inquiry into Billboards

Image Source: Canberra Sunset, 25 Feb 2012 by Steve Bittinger from Flickr

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