Digital advertising: At what cost?

Our public spaces, and our minds, continue to be sold to the digital advertisers – despite public opposition, no local or national guidelines on digital advertising, and worrying implications for our safety, our wildlife, our personal data and the continued corporate takeover of our public spaces. Nicola Round of Adblock Bristol reflects on what we’ve learned about LED ad screens, and why policies badly need updating to deal with this now dominant form of corporate outdoor advertising.

When we launched the Adblock Bristol campaign last year, I don’t think we were prepared for the amount of time we’d be spending on dissecting planning applications and getting to grips with council processes. But I’ve realised that these things are important: they are what make advertising appear on your streets, or not. And it is these policies and processes which need to change if our public spaces are to reflect the free-thinking personality of our city rather than the insidious and unwanted messages to consume, pollute, spend and borrow that are increasingly dominating our streets in bright lights and moving screens.

Digital advertising screen on St Philips Causeway, Bristol

Recently we’ve seen a number of new applications for digital advertising screens in Bristol. We are struggling to keep track of them all. This type of advertising is quickly becoming the dominant form; almost all new planning applications seem to be for digital, rather than static, advertising screens. And yet there are no policies or guidelines to help with decisions about this particularly intrusive and unwelcome form of advertising. The applications are still judged on the two limited criteria by which all outdoor advertisements have been approved or rejected for years: that of ‘public safety’ and a vague term called ‘amenity’ which means how the billboard will affect the neighbourhood it sits in, and the people who live in or use the neighbourhood. This process is guided by government guidelines which you can find here. These were published over ten years ago and do not mention digital advertising.

Here are a few reasons why updated policies are needed, and why any new sites should be put on hold until we have a much better understanding of the impacts of digital advertising, and what it means for Bristol.

Firstly, more research is needed into the safety risks. Digital advertising is designed to distract drivers. At what point does this become dangerous? Of course there are already some necessary distractions on our roads, as drivers need to notice road signs and safety information. But should we introduce unnecessary distractions, simply for the sake of advertising revenue?

Secondly, illuminations are known to affect wildlife, and these LED screens are enormous. We need street lights and road signs of course, but should we introduce unnecessary bright lights to our city when we don’t yet know the risks they present to our struggling urban wildlife?

Thirdly, there has been a great deal of local opposition to recent applications for digital advertising, including screens proposed for Mina Road in St Werburghs (rejected), Stapleton Road in Easton (currently being considered) and Marlborough Street, near Bristol coach station (rejected). People who live in, work in and visit these areas are often unaware of the proposals until it’s too late. When they do become aware, they tend to be unhappy about it. Proper consultation with the public is needed, to make sure people who are affected have their say.

Illustration by Rosa Ter Kuile

To their credit, the council has rejected a number of applications for digital screens in recent months. But the council’s decision in 2015 to develop plans for two or three new digital advertising sites was made partly because digital advertising was seen as inevitable, so the council thought they might as well get in on the game rather than leave the profits to private landowners.

Surely we could take a stronger stand than this. Imagine if Bristol had the will, and the power, to reject digital advertising from our streets altogether, and start to turn back the encroachment of all forms of corporate outdoor advertising, allowing people to enjoy public spaces without the constant pressures to spend in order to look thinner, smell sexier, drive faster, eat more, fly more, borrow more. Advertising does provide revenue for the council, but at what cost? Even a cash-strapped council has the power to make decisions about where they will draw the line. On the one hand the council urgently needs to tackle social and environmental problems such as childhood obesity and air pollution in Bristol, but on the other they are allowing junk food and car companies to plaster our city in manipulative adverts which are designed to influence at an unconscious level. Surely in the long run our health is more important than profiting from these adverts?

The council is in the process of developing a new Local Plan for Bristol. This is a great opportunity to introduce a clear policy on digital advertising, in consultation with local communities. Many supporters of Adblock Bristol’s aims have requested that the council develop an advertising-specific policy in the revised Local Plan in light of the shift to digital screens as the dominant form of advertising planning applications.

They should also ask national government to research and develop clearer guidelines on the impacts of digital advertising, to help councils decide: where – if anywhere – should they be considered? What are the environmental impacts of digital advertising? What about safety? And what on earth to make of the new surveillance capability of digital advertising units like the twenty-five ‘InLink’ wifi units currently going through Bristol council’s planning process? We are just getting word that many of these individual applications have this week been rejected by planning officers in Bristol. Good news. But advertising technology will continue to develop, and without proper understanding of its implications – for people, our environment, local economy and personal data – the council should not be blindly going ahead and selling our public spaces, and our eyeballs, to the advertisers.

Despite this, the council has pressed on with introducing huge digital advertising screens into the city. People will be familiar with the enormous two-sided screen on St Philips Causeway which can be seen for miles away, and the screen on busy Lawrence Hill roundabout.

Digital advertising screen on Lawrence Hill roundabout, Bristol

There are more to come. As a result of the 2015 decision mentioned above, the council is currently planning two huge new digital advertising screens, each measuring 8 metres by 5 metres. One would sit on the central reservation on Temple Way, the other would sit over the pedestrian walkway on Bond Street alongside Cabot Circus. Bristol Civic Society has raised serious concerns over the impact this would have on nearby residents and hotels, and on light pollution and road safety.

Proposed site for 8m x 5m digital advertising screen on Bond Street, Bristol

What can we do? It’s important to let our voices be heard, and the main way of doing that is to object to the planning applications. Lots of objections can sometimes mean that the application is rejected, and sometimes it can mean that the decision is referred to the council’s planning committee for greater scrutiny by councillors, rather than sitting in the hands of planning officers.

So I’d encourage you to submit your comments to these applications which you can find here for Temple Way and here for Bond Street.

Proposed site for 8m x 5m digital advertising screen on Temple Way, Bristol

These are your public spaces, and this is how the council will find out how you want them to be used. You can also email your councillor to let them know how you feel. Find your councillor here.

This is an important part of the Adblock Bristol plan, but we’re also raising the public conversation about outdoor advertising and consumerism in the city through our public events, research, public arts and media work. We have regular monthly meetings open to everyone to get involved.

Ultimately we need a coherent vision for Bristol which listens to how people feel about their public spaces, and responds to the needs of people who live in our city, not the greed of faceless corporations. This is a huge and exciting opportunity. It would be a bold move, but just imagine if Bristol was the first city in the UK to ban billboards, creating a happier, healthier, less stressed-out city that benefits everyone.

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4 thoughts on “Digital advertising: At what cost?

  1. Thanks for bringing these soulless invasions to our attention. I’ve objected to the two listed above – it was easy and satisfying to do.

  2. I fully support your argument(s) regarding the hazards associated with digital advertising. Even now, it is dangerous enough driving on the busy roads with all the existing “static”advertising boards vying for the attention of drivers. It seems inevitable that as the new technology develops, advertisers will exploit all the capabilities of the technology to introduce more and more “moving” and “eye-catching” graphic/text images to distract drivers from their primary function i.e. to drive safely and avoid other road users. One life taken would be one too many.

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