A street scene showing a number of different people walking past a digital advertising screen in the foreground with an advert for OVO energy on a green background with text reading 'saving up to 28% on heating? Smart'. Across the screen is yellow and black tape which reads 'this screen uses the energy of three houses' next to the Adblock Lambeth circular logo

Adblock Lambeth’s ‘Day of Action’ was a great success – but a worrying sign of things to come…

Earlier this month Adblock Lambeth hosted a day of action which involved Adblock members and supporters from the local community walking around the borough to map the number of screens and highlight the impact of these free-standing digital advertising monoliths using anti-advertising slogan tape.

The day before the planned action, Adfree Cities mysteriously received a ‘cease & desist’ letter from Clear Channel UK (one of the big street advertising companies alongside Global and JC Decaux) some of whose ad screens were on the route. The letter stated that “action by persons connected with Adblock Lambeth or otherwise that interferes with our client’s assets and property, would be undertaken without our client’s permission and consequently would be unlawful”. 

It went on to threaten the “issuing [of] court proceedings to obtain urgent injunctive relief to restrain any unlawful conduct”, before finally notifying us that Clear Channel UK were “also liaising with the London Borough of Lambeth and the Police in advance of the planned event on 3 June 2023 to seek to avoid any interference with its property.”

Ad companies are shaken

The issuing of legal threats is evidence of both how seriously Big Ad companies like Clear Channel take the tireless campaigning work of organisations like Adblock Lambeth, how scared they are about our capacity to channel public opinion into legislative change, and how willing they are to use hugely disproportionate resources to threaten, obstruct and silence grassroots community campaigns in order to defend the interests of their corporate clients. 

They’d be right to be threatened – of course. Adfree Cities and our associated local Adblock groups have had some big wins in recent years. Whether it be Adblock Bristol blocking over 40 screens in the city since 2017, Adblock Cardiff winning restrictions on harmful advertising, or Adfree Cities’ recent victory in a ruling against Shell by the ASA – advertisers no longer have it all their own way.

On the day, Adblock Lambeth were met by three police officers at the start of the walk, who promptly indicated that they had no issues with the planned action, which was clearly legal and non-damaging. Everything went smoothly, no damage was caused, and the two walking groups continued as planned, mapping ugly pavement-blocking monoliths across Vauxhall, Clapham and Brixton.

A street scene with a man in a hat standing next to two policemen in uniform all looking at a digital billboard with their backs to the camera. The text on the billboard reads 'ads seen here help fund local services'
Photo credit Camille Aboudaram

Not one to miss an opportunity, on the day of the action Clear Channel cynically changed all of their Lambeth screens to only advertise their own spurious claims about their value to the community! The action picked up some press coverage too – check out this article in the South London Press and this one on Brixton Buzz.

A sign of things to come?

Whilst the planned action went well, and was effective in rattling Clear Channel for calling out their tenuous claims of being a ‘platform for good’ – the involvement of lawyers and law enforcement is a worrying sign of the creeping authoritarianism faced by peaceful, lawful protests in Britain today. 

Recent government crackdowns on protest, such as the Public Order Act and the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Act have severely restricted free speech, and the right to protest. Whilst the legislation is mainly targeted at direct action climate groups such as Just Stop Oil, Extinction Rebellion and Insulate Britain, it’s clear that corporate interests have already begun exploring and testing how they can weaponise these oppressive new legal constraints. 

Clear Channel’s aggressive and distasteful hounding of a community-led organisation campaigning for a healthier, happier society is a worrying sign of things to come. But these high-handed tactics will not succeed. 

How we can push back

Ultimately, funding public services by promoting alcohol, gambling, payday loans, fossil fuels and junk food is both grotesque and counter-productive. We have clear evidence that the TFL junk food advertising ban has encouraged healthier decision making. It is crucial that we continue to resist the dark logic that says the only way for a local council to be financially sustainable is to hand over public spaces to corporate interests.

If you want to join the movement for advertising reform, join your local group to take action against outdoor corporate advertising where you live.

An image of an arm wearing a white t-shirt pulling yellow and black tape over an advert for Dove deodorant which features a man with short dark hair and a beard wearing a blue button up shirt. The tape reads 'advertising shits in your head' next to the Adblock Lambeth circular logo
Photo credit Camille Aboudaram

Written by Adfree Cities Parliamentary Campaigner, Jay Jackson (@wordsbyjayj)

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