Having spent my entire career in marketing, I’m hardly an anti-capitalist. But there is one form of advertising that I’d happily see banned tomorrow: billboards.
The multi-billion dollar outdoor advertising industry is built on a premise that all marketers should reject: that it’s okay to sell people’s eyeballs without their consent or benefit.
As a consumer, you can opt out of online spam (or at least filter it into your junk folder), but none of us can opt out of the worst spam of all, the visual spam that spoils our cities and turns our environment into a shrill marketplace. — the spam pumped into our eyes by Clear Channel, CBS Outdoor and the other outdoor advertising giants.
Drive through any city and count the billboard ads. You can’t do it. There are far too many. We’ve grown so used to them that we think all cities and towns have to look like this. But they don’t. We can easily get rid of billboard ads.
Back in 2007, Sao Paolo, the world’s seventh largest city, banned outdoor advertising as part of its Clean City Law. There was a massive howl from the outdoor advertising industry – especially from Clear Channel – but the sky didn’t fall, it emerged from behind the billboards.
“The Clean City Law came from a necessity to combat pollution,” said Sao Paolo Mayor Gilberto Kassab, “pollution of water, sound, air, and the visual. We decided that we should start combating pollution with the most conspicuous sector – visual pollution.”
And ‘visual pollution’ is as good a definition of billboard ads that I can think of.
It’s hard to say what Sao Paolo will look like when all the emtpy billboard structures are removed but the residents are starting to see a new city — and 70% of them support the ban on outdoor advertising. (Check out Tony de Marco’s flickr photostream of the emtpy billboard dinosaurs)
Following Sao Paolo’s lead, San Francisco, Seattle and dozens of other American cities have started to experiment with some sensible limitations on all new billboards. Again, Clear Channel and the outdoor advertising industry are lobbying hard to fight the trend (“Outdoor advertising is culture!”). But as people start to see how nice their cities can be without 50-foot Big Macs and Bruce Willis billboards at every intersection, the tide could turn.
As you’d expect, McDonalds is the world’s biggest outdoor advertiser. The billboards they post in two years could wrap the world — as indeed they do. (Much as I like a quarter-pounder with cheese, I’ve half a mind to boycott McDonalds until they stop their assault by billboards).
Can the B2B market do anything about the blight of outdoor advertising? A lot. And it wouldn’t hurt much — outdoor is probably the least efficient of all B2B media (it’s better for burgers). Even billboards outside of convention centres during big trade shows are still 90+% waste. It may be a ‘clear channel’ but it’s the worst B2B channel of all.
Here’s an idea: the next time you see outdoor advertising in a marketing plan, suggest cancelling it and doing more content marketing or SEO. The return on investment will go up and you’ll have done something tangible in the fight against billboards, Clear Channel and the outdoor advertising industry.
You’ll also have done something positive for your neighbours.
What do you think?
Am I missing some hidden benefit that billboard ads deliver?
Am I being unfair to Clear Channel or McDonalds?
Is the outdoor advertising industry worth protecting?
Or are you just a fan of billboards?
Photo: Tony de Marco