In this blog, Adfree Cities’ new Parliamentary Campaigner, Jay Jackson (@wordsbyjayj), writes about why he wants to campaign for less outdoor advertising, and why the alternatives to corporate advertising are better for us, our health and the planet.
Adverts really are everywhere.
Once you start looking for them, you simply cannot fail to notice them at every turn. This is particularly true in our urban centres. Devoid of green spaces, nature and community but plastered with gaudy hoardings boldly proclaiming the benefits of the latest skincare fad or the eco-credentials of the companies most responsible for the climate emergency.
Over 80% of people in the UK live in urban areas, and this is only expected to rise. Making these areas pleasant and healthy places in which to live your life should be at the top of the agenda for both local and national governments. This means drastically reducing the toxic air pollution that plagues our cities, improving public transport provision, creating dedicated green spaces open to all and, of course, freeing the built environment from the omnipresent menace of adverts.
Transactions need to take place in order for the economy to function, and advertising can be a useful way to grease the wheels of commerce, as well as an important public health messaging tool. What isn’t necessary, however, is the rampant proliferation of huge digital advertising screens in our urban areas.
These giant digital billboards and “six-sheet” screens have exploded over recent decades, with 14,500 now dotting the streets of our towns and cities. The number of screens grows by around 3% per year, benefitting from a planning framework that simply does not account for them and their injurious effects on cities and the people who live in them.
Placing giant digital billboards adjacent to roads, at junctions, on motorways and even on roundabouts clearly presents unnecessary risks to drivers, cyclists and pedestrians. These billboards, and the adverts displayed on them, are specifically designed to attract and hold the attention of those in their presence. This clearly is antithetical to the idea of road safety and careful, considerate and attentive driving.
Light pollution is another negative consequence of digital ad screens. UK cities already have a huge issue with artificial light at night, with 99% of the UK population living in light-polluted areas. As well as affecting wildlife by disrupting behaviours of migration, predation, and mating, giant digital billboards can be hugely intrusive to nearby buildings, shining blindingly-bright light into bedrooms, making sleep impossible, as Julia Williams discovered when a digital billboard was installed right outside her home, despite her objections.
And the glare of the electric billboard comes at quite the cost. Large billboards require the same amount of energy to run for a year as 11 UK homes. At a time when energy rationing is back in the headlines, talk of blackouts stalks the winter months, and in the context of a cost-of-living crisis primarily precipitated by inflated energy costs, it is surely time to think about if as a society we think powering these giant screens is a good use of our electricity.
It’s not just the built environment that suffers. Giant adverts also have a negative impact on local businesses. Digital advertising, particularly on expensive billboards, benefits larger corporations like Amazon, McDonald’s and KFC that have greater marketing budgets, creating an uneven playing field for local businesses, making it even harder for them to compete.
There’s also a more direct human side of the story. This week is Mental Health Awareness Week and the constant bombardment from advertising that we face when navigating our urban areas does have detrimental effects on our mental health and sense of self-worth. Constantly being told that this product will transform your life or that holiday will finally make you happy ensures that we are all kept on the hamster wheel of consumption.
Envisaging a world in which our urban areas are relatively free of the malign influence of mass advertising is actually easier than you might think. That’s because, as upcoming research by Adfree Cities will prove, whilst some areas are oversaturated with digital advertising, others are almost entirely free of it.
I wonder if you can guess what the key difference between these areas might be?
Whilst, naturally, there are fewer ads in rural areas, there are huge disparities in the number of adverts within urban areas and cities when it comes to high-income and low-income neighbourhoods.
Take a walk around Poundbury in Dorset, the town built by King Charles III when he was wiling away his years as Prince of Wales, and you won’t find a single digital ad screen. Walk around Peterborough, Plymouth or Portsmouth and you won’t be able to walk for more than a couple of minutes without stumbling across one, often literally, with the rise of new monolithic BT ‘street hubs’ that are replacing telephone boxes all over the country.
Digital ad screens, where they are placed, who sees them, and what the real costs of them are, should be of concern to everyone. Because whether you like it or not, it affects everyone. The places we live in should be focused on wellbeing, joy and community – not consumerism, manipulation and data-mining. Urban advertising is both cause and symptom of the hyper-individualist and consumption-driven society that decades of neoliberalism has produced.
Reducing urban advertising is about social justice, fighting back against the endless invasion of public space in the name of profiteering, and simply making the places that most of us spend our lives pleasant places to be.