Advertising impacts us in many ways, whether through manipulating us unconsciously or encouraging excessive consumption which is damaging our environment and wellbeing. But we don’t have to just accept outdoor advertising in our communities and public spaces and we can imagine something better.
We want to create happier, healthier cities free from the pressures of corporate outdoor advertising
Local Adblock groups show that alternatives are possible. For example, Adblock Bristol has blocked applications for over 30 large digital advertising screens as well as for 50 smaller screens; the Bristol group has also worked with the council to get several existing billboards removed. Adblock Lambeth has successfully lobbied for the introduction of a local Advertising and Sponsorship Policy that prohibits ads for junk food, payday loans, alcohol and ‘high-carbon’ products, and also states a presumption against the construction of new large digital billboards. Adblock Brum has stopped 14 new billboard applications and Adblock Norwich has worked with local councillors to propose a motion to restrict harmful advertising. Adblock Bristol also set up the Burg Arts project, a community arts billboard which has featured a series of artworks organised by local artists and now works with local groups to reimagine their communities. These are all successes that could be replicated elsewhere.
Adfree Cities is the national network of these local groups who are concerned about the impacts of corporate advertising on our health, wellbeing, environment, climate, communities and the local economy. This guide will help you set up a new group near you.
What is an Adblock group?
Adblock groups campaign for public spaces that are free from corporate outdoor advertising to create happier, healthier towns and cities. We organise to stop new advertising billboards being constructed and champion alternative visions of our neighbourhoods that celebrate community connection, solidarity, public art and rewilded green spaces. We hold public conversations about the negative impacts of corporate advertising on our environment, our wellbeing and our mental health and lobby local councils to change planning policies.
Groups in the Adfree Cities network have a shared vision and values. Within this framework, all member groups are autonomous: the Adfree Cities team is here to enable and support member groups to build and deliver effective campaigns, but ultimately how you do this is up to you and depends on your local context, priorities and preferences.
The first Adblock group started in Bristol in 2017 and there are now Adblock groups around the UK. We are actively looking to create new groups around the country to be part of our national network so if there is not already one in your local area to join consider setting one up yourself! Anyone is welcome to set up an Adblock group where you’re based.
Perhaps you’ve been motivated by a particular obnoxious advert for a damaging product on an existing advertising billboard. Or perhaps a huge new digital screen has gone up in your neighbourhood and you’d like to stop any more. Or you’re annoyed about how the monopolising force of consumerism is affecting our relationships, our identities, our priorities, our climate and public spaces.
We suggest you pull together a small organising team to organise your first activity. This could be as small as 3 or 4 people to begin with. The activities below are good for getting the ball rolling, to enthuse new people to get involved.
Some initial activities
A film night
Film nights are a good way to get people inspired and talking. After the film, you could run a Q&A and ‘How to Get Involved’ discussion
- ‘Subvertisers for London’ (22 minutes) can be screened online.
- ‘This Space Available’ (1 hour 30 mins) can be purchased for screening.
- ‘The Illusionists’ (different length versions available) is about the globalisation of the beauty industry. It is available for a small fee from the Producer.
There are also a number of shorter films available online that could be used to start a conversation in a meeting or introduce the topic. See for example the Brandalism Project.
Organise a talk
Adfree Cities has prepared a replicable presentation with notes that can be delivered by anyone. An Introduction to Adbusting (1 hour) – contact us for a copy and facilitation notes.
Alternatively you could invite someone from Adfree Cities to give a talk or workshop, depending on availability and travel times – just Contact us! Or think about local academics, activists, artists or subvertisers who could come and speak.
‘Subverting advertising’ can be an empowering way of speaking back to the one-way dominance of advertisers and to make space for marginalised voices. It can involve altering or replacing corporate advertising with other artwork although there are some legal considerations as outlined in Brandalism’s Subvertising Manual. Although it is not the focus of the work of Adfree Cities and not a tactic we use, we recognise the role of creative direct action such as ‘subvertising’ in creating social change and we stand in solidarity with the wider subvertising and anti-advertising movement. There are also other low risk public facing activities that local Adblock groups can do.
The ‘Six Sheet Cover Up’ is a simple, family-friendly and low risk way of engaging people on the street about advertising. It involves covering a smaller street advertising unit with blank paper, writing a question at the top and then leaving some pens for people to write their replies to the question on the paper. As people write, you can chat to them about the campaign. When you’re finished and ready to go home, you can simply remove the white paper.
You can also use this as an opportunity to ask specific relevant local questions, maybe about any planned advertising applications or policies, and gather any data which might be useful for lobbying in the future e.g. email addresses and postcodes of those who you speak to and numbers of people who oppose advertising or particular types of advertising alongside some good quotes. Make sure to get some good photos! See our six-sheet cover up tips and photo guide.
Plan a launch event
You could combine an event with one of the shorter films above or a talk. Adblock Bristol and Adblock Cardiff, for example, found there was significant press interest in their launch events, because the idea of ad-free cities is newsworthy.
Gather the email addresses and contact details of the people who come to your first meeting and use this as a basis for further action. A good platform to use is Action Network as you can use it to set up petitions, events and send out newsletters as well as capture your email contact list. Adfree Cities has run some basic training on using Action Network which has been recorded. Contact us for more information.
Appeal to a broad selection of people
Developing a critique of outdoor advertising allows us to work intersectionally across many issues relating to the environment, climate, gender stereotyping and sexism, public health, children’s health (e.g junk food), parenting, mental health, debt, the economy, planning, public space, street art and ‘The Right to the City’ concept. It is advisable to build a group that appeals to all these communities at the same time – to create the broadest possible movement in your hometown and harness the maximum amount of campaign energy.
See our resources page for guides to the arguments against outdoor advertising relating to mental health, body image, climate breakdown, light pollution and local economies. To request hard copies of these reports, please contact us.
You also need to think about who you are trying to reach and the methods you use to do this. For example, younger communities may be more likely to engage through social media platforms such as Instagram and older populations may be more likely to see information in a local printed paper or newsletter. It is also important to try to meet people in the spaces that they already access so it could be useful to build links with local community, citizen or parent groups as well as the more obvious relevant local branches of organisations such as Friends of the Earth, Extinction Rebellion (XR), Incredible Edible and Greenpeace, as well as local transition and divest movements.
You also need to think about how you are making your meetings and activities accessible and participatory. Are meetings at a time that works for people with childcare responsibilities? Is your meeting venue accessible? Will some people need any support to attend e.g. travel costs, hearing loop? Are you providing refreshments that are vegan and halal or serving alcohol? If you are able to make your events accessible be really clear about this on the advertising so that everyone knows that they are welcome and can get support if they need it. Think about this in terms of the facilitation of meetings as well. For example, having a check in and go-round at the beginning of a meeting where people introduce themselves with their preferred pronouns (she/her, he/him, they/them etc.) can set the tone for the type of space you are trying to create. There are other facilitation techniques and ideas that mean that everyone can have their voice heard and feel included in a way that works for them. The Adfree Cities Network Director can give advice about group facilitation and other ideas to support you with forming your local group if needed, just contact us.
Have a positive message
There’s a lot of things to dislike about corporate outdoor advertising, but in opposing them there’s also an opportunity to articulate a positive vision for our cities: e.g “for a city free from corporate outdoor advertising” and “we want to create a happier, healthier and less stressed-out city.” Or talk about positive alternatives for these ad spaces such as street art murals, tree planting and green spaces.
Concerns about advertising related to their intrusiveness, their impact on the environment, body image, gender stereotypes, mental health, debt and the commercialisation of public space will inevitably crop up when discussing advertising, so it’s important to keep coming back to a positive, forward-thinking vision for our towns and cities.
Set up a system for fighting new planning applications
Stopping new billboards is a way for your group to have an immediate impact against the corporate outdoor advertising industry and build morale and momentum in the group. You can do this by mobilising local objections to planning applications for new billboards – around 20-30 objections to an application should be enough to have permission refused or potentially get it ‘called in’ for local councillors to scrutinise the planning application more thoroughly.
Between April 2017 and May 2022 in Bristol, 35 planning applications for large digital advertising screens were stopped by Adblock Bristol as well as applications for 50 smaller screens, and between October 2019 and November 2020 Adblock Brum stopped 14 new billboard applications.
It is crucial to stop these screens before they get planning permission as they are much, much harder to remove once constructed.
Local councils have a planning portal where you can do a keyword search. Do an online search for ‘planning portal council’ with the name of your council to find it. Once you’re in the planning portal webpage search: ‘advertisement’ and ‘advertising’ to find any current applications.
Here is an example of the Cardiff City Council planning portal:
Mobilising public responses to planning applications
In Adblock Bristol, one member of the group is responsible for checking the list of new planning applications each week. That person alerts a wider internal group of Adblock supporters. If a planning application is found, a separate person writes a very short blog. This is necessary because the information on the Planning Portal is quite dry and technical for members of the public to look at.
A short blog should include:
- The location of the proposed new billboard
- The size (e.g ‘48 sheet’ or ‘20 foot wide’, bus stop panel or pavement unit)
- An image (either lifted from the planning application documents or a Google Street View shot of the proposed location)
- The planning reference number
- A link to the planning portal
- The deadline for objections
- The relevant legal grounds for objection which are: damage to amenity and danger to road safety. More information on objecting to planning applications.
Check out an example blog from Adblock Lambeth here.
The blog post and photo can then be shared in social media posts to mobilise public responses. If enough objections are submitted (e.g 15–20) or the proposed billboard is in a well known location, you may wish to contact the local media, perhaps on Twitter, or with a press release by email. (Here is a dummy press release you can use as a template.) In addition to the above, there are lots of creative ways to garner media coverage and mobilise responses – you can explore new ideas with your group.
Local councils can pass a planning policy introducing a presumption against all new planning applications for outdoor advertising. This can be neatly summarised as ‘No New Billboards’. A useful parallel here is the Greater Manchester Combined Authority’s presumption against planning applications for fracking introduced in 2019, even though national legislation at the time was in favour of fracking. You could lobby the council to introduce a No New Billboards policy in their ‘Local Plan’ or ‘Local Development Framework’ – each council has different versions and names for these.
For example, Adblock Bristol ran a campaign in Spring 2019 calling for a planning policy of No New Billboards to be included in the revision of Bristol City Council’s Local Plan. This involved a petition with a simple ask of ‘No New Billboards’ that gained over 1,700 signatures. This petition was also good for building a local email newsletter list. The petition was submitted as part a formal response to Bristol Council’s consultation on the revision of the Local Plan.
Lambeth Council have also included in their Local Plan 2020-2035 (page 212) that “In order to enhance the environment, proposals for the renewal of advertisement consents for existing large panel advertisements will generally be resisted.” This will help Adblock Lambeth to oppose any applications for new billboards or to change paper sites into digital screens. However, other councils have been reluctant to agree to blanket policies such as this because they are concerned about this being unlawful under the planning regulations which currently cover outdoor advertising sites. This just shows that every council needs a different approach and that Adfree Cities still need to push for policy change at a national level.
Advertising policies and / or contracts
Local councils can also decide what kinds of advertising are allowed on Council-controlled advertising sites (e.g bus stops and billboards on Council land), and can choose to prohibit adverts for socially or environmentally harmful products and services. They can do this via their contracts with advertising companies, and/or via an overarching Advertising Policy.
For example, following lobbying by Adblock Bristol, in March 2021 Bristol Council adopted a new Advertising and Sponsorship Policy prohibiting ads for junk food, payday loans, gambling, alcohol and adverts in parks. The policy will apply to adverts under the Council’s direct control, including bus stop screens and billboards on Council land. And in January 2021 Liverpool Council passed a Low Carbon Advertising Policy (p15 here) to meet their commitment to becoming a net zero carbon city by 2030 after receiving emails requesting it from local residents. More information and a template motion for a Low Carbon Advertising Policy.
Climate Emergency Action Plans
Many councils in the UK have declared a climate emergency and are writing Action Plans to implement this. Campaigners can make a strong argument that these Climate Emergency Action Plans should include a policy of No New Billboards. As well as the carbon emissions caused by the products advertised (flights, SUVs, etc), digital billboards are hugely energy intensive themselves. A bus stop size double ad screen uses 4 times the annual electricity of the average UK home. Adblock Leeds has also calculated the direct energy use of outdoor advertising in different cities, which can be adapted to show the impact in your local area too.
Engaging with councillors
As your group grows, you should engage your local councillors. Friendly councillors are very useful allies. It’s useful for them to hear that people in your town / city are concerned about outdoor advertising and they can advise on planning applications and local council policy. Look for friendly councillors, especially in the most affected areas.
Using online platforms to connect and organise
You will probably want to set up a mailing list or email group. Most Adblock groups currently use Action Network, but you might also consider GoogleGroups, Riseup, an end-to-end encryption service such as ProtonMail or another platform.
It is useful to remember that there are alternatives to the big corporate communications providers, for example using Signal rather than Whatsapp (which is owned by Facebook), and open source participatory technology such as Ushahidi for local mapping.
However, it is hard to get away from the fact that social media platforms such as Twitter, Instagram and Facebook can be very useful campaigning and communication tools and many local groups use them to amplify their message and reach new supporters. Most of our local groups use social media and you can find links to their social media accounts on their pages. You can find the Adfree Cities network on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook.
How a local group fits into the national picture
Adfree Cities wants to support new groups to form to make an impact in local towns and cities against the spread of outdoor advertising. But we also want to build a national conversation about the impacts of advertising and consumerism on our environment, our public spaces and our wellbeing. We want to champion alternative visions of our public spaces that celebrate public art, community connections and rewilded green spaces. Local groups can work together to form part of this groundswell.
The current national planning guidance on advertising billboards is out of date and has not taken into account the switch in the industry from paper boards to digital ad screens. As you can read in our Guide to Making Planning Objections, the current legal criteria which can be formally considered in planning decisions is whether an application is harmful to the amenity of an area and whether it poses a danger to road safety as a distraction to road users.
Concerns about climate change, air pollution, the impacts of fast fashion and junk food, the mental health impacts of being constantly pressured to consume, the equality and disability impacts of digital screens on people with photosensitivity conditions – none of these are formally relevant at present.
In the longer term, Adfree Cities is seeking to build a national coalition of like-minded groups to press for changes to these planning laws to give local councils and local residents greater powers to object to billboards and the ability to create ad-free cities. This requires more work.
Adfree Cities also runs campaigns at a UK-wide level, often in collaboration with other like-minded groups, and supports relevant campaigns with similar objectives and focus. As a local group you can also support and link to national and international campaigns to broaden your reach and make links with national and international anti-advertising networks.