Image shows a standing ad screen on a pavement. The advert reads "in ads we trust"

How trustworthy is outdoor advertising?

Outdoor advertising allows corporations to slap their messaging all over our public spaces. Isn’t it time we asked whether we can trust what they’re saying?

Outdoor advertising, the ad industry likes to brag, is the one medium you can’t turn off. Walking through a town or city it can certainly feel this way, with billboards and ad screens blaring on every corner.

Given its omnipresence, you’d expect outdoor advertising to hold itself to the highest standards of trustworthiness, wouldn’t you?

Unfortunately, the numbers suggest that all is not as it seems.

In their 2022 Annual Report, the UK advertising regulator’s data show that in 2022 there were a shocking 1,419 complaints made against 530 different outdoor ads. That’s the second highest number of complaints in a year since 2013 and a 14% rise on 2021.

A screenshot of a table in a report which shows complaints against different advertising media. The top 5 are online, television, outdoor, email and radio.
Image: ASA Report 2022.

Recent examples

We’ve seen recent examples of outdoor advertising being used to mislead and greenwash.

In 2022, we reported major bank HSBC to the ASA over a series of adverts in which HSBC boasted about the money they put into planting trees without mentioning the vastly greater sums they pour into financing fossil fuel extraction.

The ASA upheld our complaint and HSBC was forced to retract the ads.

The same year we also reported EasyJet for using outdoor ads to greenwash themselves ahead of COP26.

A billboard in a bus stop shows an ad by HSBC that reads "climate change doesn't do borders"

What can you do to help?

Reporting ads to the ASA is great, but it is reactive and can be very slow to get a result.

A better solution to free our public spaces from the lies of the ad industry is to introduce ethical advertising policies where you live. You can ask your councillor to introduce such a policy to limit advertising for things like junk food, gambling, alcohol and high carbon products, meaning that advertisers and corporations will have much less opportunity to get creative with the truth.

Find out more about how you can help create ad-free cities here.

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