Got a question about Adfree Cities? Check our list of frequently asked questions – if you can’t find the answer you need please contact us.

What’s so bad about billboards?

The advertising industry boasts that billboards are “the one medium you can’t turn off”. Outdoor advertising is impossible to escape. It’s in our public spaces without our consent, and the growth of digital ad screens in public places is making it even harder to avoid. 

Large scale outdoor advertising is expensive, and therefore used by big corporations over local businesses, which harms local economies and undermines efforts to shop locally and sustainably. The top ten companies using outdoor advertising in the UK include: McDonalds, KFC, Coca Cola and Tesco.

Billboards are often concentrated in lower income areas, where they deepen existing inequalities through both harmful content and unwelcome physical characteristics. Advertisers can more easily saturate less affluent areas with advertising (for example, if there are more major roads, advertising is considered to be more acceptable by planners and policymakers, while renting costs can also be cheaper for advertising companies). 

Digital billboards are a particular problem because they are even more intrusive than paper billboards, use a huge amount of electricity, cause light pollution which harms wildlife and people, and are more distracting to drivers.

For more detail see: The trouble with billboards and Living Next to Digital Billboards. For more information on the problems with advertising content, see our resources on What’s wrong with advertising?. We look at how advertising impacts mental health, environment, ecology, sexism and the local economy.

Why doesn’t Adfree Cities campaign against all kinds of advertising?

Our focus is on creating neighbourhoods and cities free from corporate outdoor advertising such as billboards. There are specific problems with outdoor advertising as explained briefly above and in more detail here: The trouble with billboards. And there are unique opportunities for communities to reclaim these spaces for art, nature and local initiatives.

Adfree Cities grew from the local campaign group Adblock Bristol which works to prevent and remove advertising sites in Bristol. Our member groups around the UK are well placed to take action at a local level, campaigning to prevent or remove billboards locally. With limited resources we need to put our energy where we are going to be most effective.

We recognise that there are problems with other advertising formats too. Advertising tactics which seek to manipulate us are used equally elsewhere. We support other campaigns which are tackling the harms of corporate advertising which could be in print, online, broadcast or sports sponsorship. We are members of coalitions including the Coalition Against Gambling Advertising (CAGA) and End Surveillance Advertising to Kids.

What about the income that councils receive from advertising?

Local councils do receive some income from outdoor advertising. In some billboard contracts a local council is the landowner and receives some income from the advertising company. Councils also receive business rates from advertising sites. 

However, income from advertising is a relatively tiny portion of the council’s budget, and outdoor advertising is leading to many more harms that directly contradict council goals and funded projects, for example those tackling unhealthy eating, gambling dependency or structural inequalities. 

Artwork by Camille Aboudaram

A report by the Economist Intelligence Unit into ‘The Impacts of Banning Advertising Directed at Children in Brazil’ found that banning advertising to children would lead to a healthier population and lower healthcare spending. It also found “positive outcomes from the enforcement of a total ban on child-directed advertising in Brazil—that is, the benefits to Brazilian society of enforcing a ban would be greater than the costs of enforcing it.

Cities like Chennai, Grenoble, Paris and São Paulo have recognised that the cost, financial and otherwise, of outdoor advertising isn’t worth the income it brings, and have taken steps to remove it – creating space for people and nature.

Advertising doesn’t work on me.

Advertising affects us all, whether we like it or not. Here’s a great video from youth led campaign Bite Back 2030 which shows how. ‘Triple Dipped Chicken’ exposes the tactics being used by advertisers to ensure junk food plays a starring role in kids’ minds.

Advertising is designed to manipulate us at a subconscious level, playing on our desires and creating an emotional link with a product. With the deeply concerning practice of neuromarketing, brands like McDonald’s, Pepsi and Kraft are going further, employing neuroscience techniques which use brain imaging to identify unconscious states which influence consumer behaviour. By measuring responses to marketing in the unconscious mind, advertisers can adjust their campaigns to trigger responses, leading us to make impulsive decisions.

In the case of billboards, especially the increasing number of huge digital advertising screens in our cities, this advertising is simply impossible to ignore. Not only are we unable to stop looking at the adverts, we are also unable to avoid being influenced by them when we do: research shows that we don’t even have to be paying attention to an advert in order to be influenced by it.

In the UK, £23.5bn was spent on advertising in 2019, including £1.3bn on outdoor advertising (called ‘out-of-home advertising’ by the industry). Big brands and advertisers know it works, and are willing to spend millions on making sure you buy their product.

I drink Coca-Cola / drive a car / eat burgers – do you want to ban all those things?

No. Getting rid of advertising is not the same as getting rid of the products being advertised.

Tobacco advertising was banned because of the evidence that smoking damages our health. Similarly, we now know that certain products harm our health and the planet, it doesn’t make any sense to allow advertisers to normalise and even glamourise these products on giant posters and screens around our neighbourhoods. In 10 years time, will we look back at ads for junk food, petrol cars, flights, gambling and others in the same way as we now look back at tobacco ads?

Advertising is regulated by the ASA – that’s enough isn’t it?

Our own research shows that the Advertising Standards Authority is failing to protect us from harmful advertising – hardly surprising when you discover that the ASA’s rules are set by ad industry insiders. Our ‘Too close for comfort’ report revealed that only 22% of complained-about adverts are investigated and only 2% upheld.

Ads that haven’t been investigated by the ASA in recent years, despite receiving several hundreds of complaints, include a McDonald’s ad that used a child’s grief at the death of a parent to sell Filet-o-Fish burgers, a KFC ad with a dancing chicken that was widely considered to be distressing and disrespectful, and multiple greenwashing adverts throughout 2021.

What about charity advertising, or ads for local businesses?

We don’t have a problem with charity advertising, but in reality very little billboard advertising is for charities since for the most part only big brands are able to afford it. This also applies for local businesses.

Outdoor advertising companies often make claims about their work with charity partners, for example ClearChannel UK promotes its ‘#PlatformForGood’. However, this is a small proportion of the advertising we see on our streets, and can be seen as PR for the advertisers themselves.

How can I stop billboards where I live?

To get involved in blocking ads in your area, find your local Adblock group, or start your own campaign! You could host a film, ideas workshop or debate night to kick things off, invite one of the Adfree Cities team along to speak, or start by checking for new planning applications for digital billboards to find out what might be in the pipeline for your area. Adfree Cities can help you get started: contact us.

We also have plenty of resources for you to call on your local council to adopt restrictions on advertising, for example by banning harmful ads like those for junk food, gambling or high-carbon products.

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