Stop the Screen: taking on a giant advertiser (guest blog)

Thanks to Julia Williams for this guest blog telling her story of the sudden appearance of a large digital advertising screen immediately outside her flat in Barking & Dagenham in 2021. You can also find a recording of Julia’s plenary talk at the Adfree Cities national conference in May 2022 here, and embedded below.

It’s funny how people become mildly offended when you suggest that they are being influenced by the outdoor advertising that has crept into our urban landscape more and more over the past decade or so. If you do a quick survey of your family, friends and work colleagues, they may well tell you confidently that there is hardly any of that sort of thing in the place where they live. However, if you challenge them to have a proper look around and report back to you with their findings in 24 hours, their eyes will have been opened.

Right in the middle of the pandemic, both parties thought it right and proper to bulldoze a mature tree, lay down a 3 metre deep trench of solid concrete and put up an 18 square metre screen

My eyes were well and truly opened in August 2021 when Clear Channel, in cahoots with the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham, installed a huge digital advertising screen on an amenity green directly opposite my flat. Right in the middle of the pandemic, both parties thought it right and proper to bulldoze a mature tree, lay down a 3 metre deep trench of solid concrete and put up an 18 square metre screen, all for my personal benefit. I couldn’t be more grateful. Sometimes if you watch old American movies from the 1950s, the villain of the piece will find themselves in some run-down hotel next to a railrod track with a constantly flashing neon sign outside their window. My situation is rather like that, except I can’t check out. I suppose I ought to feel honoured. I’m pretty much the only person who can see it, apart from a dozen furious neighbours and the recipients of the Trussell Trust food bank in the church next door. So far Clear Channel have tried to sell me exclusive tickets to Royal Ascot, a holiday to Australia, a luxury hot tub for my non-existent garden and GB News (nope, not going to happen!

BEFORE:

AFTER:

I am now well-versed in some of the technical terms surrounding these monstrosities. For instance, I know that it is a 48 sheet screen that uses the same amount of electricity as 11 three-bedroomed houses.  Of course, as soon as the screen went up, I logged onto the Council’s website which generously gave me the opportunity to write a couple of sentences in protest.  Thus began a train of correspondence that resulted in Clear Channel making quite a lot of ridiculous claims and assertions, all the more frustrating because, as a private company, they are not obliged to prove anything at all. For example, they insisted that the digital screen was more environmentally friendly than paper because paper must be recycled, which means wasting fuel on trips back and forth to the local recycling depot (yes, they really said that). They even sent someone round after dark to photograph the outside of my flat. Despite the fact that the photos showed my windows to be lit up like the Blackpool Tower, it was accompanied by a statement that said the screen had no discernable effect on my property.

I managed to get hold of the documents which Clear Channel had used to apply for permission to install the screen. Their application form describes in detail a ‘commercial highway’ in a non-residential area, with no listed buildings anywhere around. They declared the screen would enhance the locality and would fit in nicely with similar structures in the area. That’s all very well, except the road they named on their application form is the A1055 which is an industrial estate 18 miles away in a totally different town. The council furiously deny that this was an error. All attempts by my local councilors to convince them otherwise fell on deaf ears. We feel thoroughly ‘gaslit’. How did their surveyor miss an estate with over 250 flats? There are three listed buildings within sight of the screen and the area is mostly residential according to official government statistics. A passive aggressive exchange of emails went on until January 2022 when the council vetoed any further correspondence after I asked them to send someone round to stand in my living room and look out of the window. They didn’t see the point of that and told me that Clear Channel had been very patient with me. How very generous of them!

They declared the screen would enhance the locality and would fit in nicely with similar structures in the area.

Clear Channel’s new screen pointing at local residencies. The advertiser’s application for planning permission named a road in an industrial estate 18 miles away.
Reflection of the screen on the windows of Julia’s flat.

In the meantime, I decided to start an email and Twitter campaign against the advertisers on the screen. I figured that if they knew they were advertising food and luxury goods next door to a food bank they might back off. To my astonishment, it worked. Tesco wins the prize for speed, taking down their advert in under three hours. Sainsbury’s were very worried and sent me a couple of lovely emails whilst their committee met to make a formal decision. They contacted Clear Channel and asked them to remove their advert, promising never to advertise on that screen again. Pepsi was a little harder to pin down due to their size, but after a couple of days they also contacted Clear Channel. Other companies that took down their adverts included Reed Employment, whose Director of Marketing was very sympathetic and Royal Ascot who ‘didn’t want any trouble’! My tweets are blunt, but my emails are very long and formal. I think this tends to scare advertisers because they don’t know who I am or which organisation I might represent. It is great when an advert disappears, so I thoroughly recommend doing this. If you don’t have a food bank next door to your screen you can challenge companies on their ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) strategy. Point out that the screen is powered by massive amounts of fossil fuels.  You can also tell them that its component parts are made up of many rare earth minerals which are mined by women, children and in some cases slave labour, in places such as The Democratic Republic of Congo and China. To celebrate every victory, I buy a big bag of groceries for the food bank.

I wonder how the doubling of electricity prices has hit Clear Channel. Well, I do know from studying their stock price that the value of their company has plummeted from £1.2 billion in January 2022 to only £454 million today (mid-June 2022) which is by anyone’s reckoning a pretty spectacular fall from grace. 

The Open Spaces Society (www.oss.org.uk ) put me in touch with the Environmental Law Foundation (elflaw.org), which operates rather like Citizen’s Advice, offering legal guidance to individuals and communities when they can’t afford a lawyer. I’m hopeful that students from Sussex University’s Law Department will manage to find some formal grounds for me to appeal to the Local Government Ombudsman. However, based on Clear Channel’s disastrous stock market performance, I do wonder whether the company will even exist in a few months’ time; their screens hauled away to pay off greedy creditors. I live in hope!

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