Today saw the UK media engage in their annual round of sycophancy about the John Lewis
Christmas advert, providing plenty of free publicity into the bargain which was obviously the
retailer’s intent. But in a corner of Wales, something very interesting was happening to resist
the endless tide of corporate advertising.
Volunteers from Adblock Cardiff, supported by our friends at Adfree Cities, met with Cardiff
Council’s cabinet member for strategic planning to discuss whether unnecessary, wasteful
and environmentally-damaging public advertising might be restricted in our city. Following a positive response to a message earlier in the year, Cllr. Dan De’ath opened the discussion by expressing his support for the principle of restricting advertising that is socially or environmentally damaging.
Three main things struck us from the discussion:
- Local councillors do understand the damaging impact of advertising – whether in
broad terms because of advertising’s effect on mental health and wellbeing, or
because of specific impacts such as the deterioration of public spaces or the
prefoliation of junk food adverts around schools.
- Local authority officials also realise both the moral and practical challenges of
advertising. We were pleasantly surprised to learn that Cardiff Council already
exercises some modest restrictions over the adverts it allows on roundabouts or bus
shelters in the city.
- Our elected representatives and council officers have perfectly valid questions about
the impact of extending restrictions – what it might mean for public finances, whether
there might be unintended consequences, and whether it can be legally defended –
but those questions don’t mean immediate rejection of the idea.
From a Cardiff perspective, the council’s own strategy document (Stronger, Fairer, Greener)
as well as legislation such as the Wellbeing of Future Generations (Wales) Act provide a
strong legal basis for reducing advertising in the public realm. It’s pretty obvious, for
example, that Cardiff’s ambitions to be a child-friendly city are incompatible with promoting
junk food outside schools or the promotion of climate-damaging products which will mean a worse future for our young people. The challenge, for us as activists, is to work with civic leaders to take one step at a time towards making it harder for pernicious and harmful advertising to happen.
There are plenty of good practice models to provide inspiration and impetus. Bristol City Council have led the way by regulating advertising of things like junk food, gambling, payday loans and alcohol, whilst some councils (such as Lambeth) have also set out a presumption against new advertising sites. The challenge now for Cardiff Council is to decide which direction(s) it wants to prioritise, and how to get there. For our part, we’ll work with them so they can have the reassurance that they are acting on the demands of citizens and for the betterment of our city.