Image shows a street with a digital ad screen. the screen has been edited with a graphic to look like a voting slip with two options. Option 1 "adverts" and option 2 "no thanks". A box to the right of option 2 is ticked.

The fight against outdoor advertising: learning lessons from Geneva

As local council elections approach on May 4th, we take a look over the Channel at a recent attempt by the people of Geneva to save their public spaces from outdoor advertising to see what lessons can be learned about reducing harmful advertising here in the UK. 

Last month, the people of Geneva, Switzerland, voted in a referendum on banning outdoor advertising on billboards and digital screens. 

Arguing that adverts promote overconsumption, especially of unsustainable products like SUVs and flights, an alliance of campaigners and concerned citizens launched Geneve Zero Pub (Geneva Without Ads), a popular initiative to ban outdoor advertising put to a referendum under Switzerland’s direct democracy system.

It was backed by a mixture of campaign groups and left and green political groups, including Geneva Sans Pub, GLIP (Genève libérée de l’invasion publicitaire), ROC (Réseau objection de croissance), and Collaborative Neighbourhoods, with the support of Greenpeace Switzerland. 

Whilst the zero advertising campaign unfortunately failed to win the referendum, the close result (48.1% for the ban, 51.9% against) demonstrates that dissatisfaction with outdoor advertising in public space is not a fringe concern but a major issue for almost half the population. 

Social justice

Fighting against outdoor corporate advertising is a social justice issue.

We know from experience in the UK that outdoor advertising causes harm through light pollution, enforcing gender stereotypes and promoting unsustainable lifestyles. Meanwhile, the siting of outdoor advertising in certain areas of towns and cities means that these negative effects often fall disproportionately on low income households and areas already suffering from air pollution and lack of investment. 

It is perhaps no surprise, then, that in the Geneva referendum, votes for the ban were consistently higher in lower income areas. 

La Jonction, which returned the highest proportion of yes votes, has a median household income of just under 107,208 CHF whereas Florissant – Malagnou, which returned the highest proportion of no votes, has a median income of 189,769 CHF. The city-wide median income is 130,469 CHF. 

A bar chart shows voting majorities for each voting district arranged according to the percentage of low income residents in that district. The chart suggests that lower income districts disproportionately voted for the ban.

This is why proposals to impose new billboards are often vigorously opposed by local people, as happened recently in Frome where people took to the streets to successfully prevent a new digital screen being installed against their wishes. 

However, it is an uphill struggle and the planning system is stongly skewed in favour of new advertising sites being installed. That is why we need change across the political system, from strengthening local governments to refuse planning permission for new installations, to national policy change to limit harmful advertising across the country.

Fighting the Opposition

The Geneve Zero Pub initiative, first launched in 2017, has been desperately opposed by right-wing political parties and the ad industry who argued that banning ads reduces revenue for the local government and infringes on freedom of trade. 

Similar arguments about loss of revenue were made in February 2019 when Transport for London (TfL) proposed to ban junk food ads. Industry experts predicted a £35 million loss in revenue. 

That proved laughably false. In reality, TfL saw ad revenues increase by 2.3 million over the year. Further, studies have since found that the ban contributed to improved public health across London, reducing the burden on the NHS. 

Around the world, the French city of Grenoble has banned billboards as have the US states of Vermont, Maine, Hawaii, and Alaska. Sao Paulo has gone furthest and is free of all public ads. None of these cities have ceased to function as a result. 

A street scene from Grenoble showing a long tree-lined boulevard stretching away into the distance.
The streets of Grenoble are now free from outdoor advertising and the city is flourishing.

When it comes to freedom of trade, it is worth noting that whilst local businesses do sometimes use outdoor advertising, the medium is dominated by massive corporations who can afford the expensive rates. 

Renting a standard 48-sheet billboard from a major ad company like Clear Channel or JCDecaux for just two weeks costs between £600 and £700 plus VAT. This is beyond what many small businesses could afford, particularly in the current cost of living crisis. 

No surprise then that amongst the companies spending most on outdoor advertising in 2022 in the UK were giants like McDonalds, Sky, Coca Cola, Amazon, KFC, Meta and Unilever. 

Meanwhile, Clear Channel and JCDecaux rake in billions in profits every year and growth in the ad industry far outstrips growth (or the lack of it) in the wider economy. Wherever those profits are going, it’s not your local high street. 

Taking action where you are

In the upcoming local elections on May 4th, we’re calling on candidates of all parties to pledge their support for two policies. 

  • introduce an ‘ethical advertising policy’ on council-controlled sites like bus stops to restrict advertising that harms public health and increases emissions, such as ads for junk food, gambling, alcohol and environmentally-damaging products.
  • a “no new billboard” policy, which would introduce a presumption against new billboards and ad screens, stopping them from being installed until national planning policy catches up with the wishes of communities. 

Advertising is increasingly in the crosshairs of campaigners around the world. 

Recognising the harm done by high carbon, polluting products like flights and SUVs, organisations including the UN and WHO are calling for tobacco-style bans on adverts for those products. 

You can help us make this a reality where you live by writing to your candidates in the upcoming local elections and asking them to pledge to support to end harmful outdoor advertising. 

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