There are 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.

We want to create happier, healthier and less stressed-out cities

A critique of outdoor advertising allows us to work intersectionally across many issues relating to the environment, gender relations, public health, children’s health (e.g junk food), parenting, mental health, debt, the economy, planning, street art and ‘The Right to the City’ concept. It is advisable to try and build a group that appeals to all these communities at the same time – to create the broadest possible movement and harness the maximum amount of campaign energy.

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. As part of the Adfree Cities network we have a shared vision and values.

We organise to stop new advertising billboards being constructed, and we champion alternative visions for our neighbourhoods that celebrate community connection, solidarity, public art and nature. We hold public conversations about the negative impacts of corporate advertising on our environment, our wellbeing and our mental health. We lobby local councils to change planning policies.

The first Adblock group started in Bristol in 2017 and there is now a network of groups across the UK. We are actively looking to create new groups around the country to be part of the Adfree Cities national network. Anyone is welcome to set up an Adblock group where you’re based.

Getting started

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 logic 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’ (2011) can be purchased for screening.
  • ‘The Illusionists’ (2015) is about the globalisation of the beauty industry. It is available for a small fee from the Producer.

Organise a talk

We have a replicable presentation that can be delivered by anyone, created by Adblock Bristol:
‘An Introduction to Adbusting’ – (25 minutes). Contact us for a copy!
Alternatively you could invite someone from Adfree Cities to give a talk, depending on availability
and travel times etc. Contact us.

‘Subvertising’

‘Subverting advertising’ has a proud history in Europe. Many groups find it 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 your own artwork. There are some legal considerations before you get started. Check out Brandalism’s Subvertising Manual . You might want to consider whether everyone in the group is comfortable being associated with these tactics. You might decide to try other tactics first to build group trust and rapport.

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.

Children take part in a cover up activity in Bristol

Plan a launch event

You could combine this with one of the shorter films or talks above. Adblock Bristol and Adblock Cardiff found there was significant press interest in these 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. You might decided to set up an email group using GoogleGroups or Rise Up. Or you might decide to organise on another platform.

Appeal to a broad selection of people

A critique of outdoor advertising allows us to work intersectionally across many issues relating to the environment, climate, gender relations, 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 and local economies. To request hard copies of these reports, please contact us.

Have a positive message

There are 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.’

You can 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, our body image, gender, 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.

Adblock Bristol’s ‘Burg Arts‘ community billboard shows how art can be a more positive use of public spaces

Set up a system for fighting new planning applications

Stopping new billboards is a way for your group to have immediate impact against the corporate outdoor advertising industry and build morale and momentum in the group. Around 20 – 30 objections to a planning application can be enough to have it ‘called in’ for local councillors to scrutinise the planning application more thoroughly.

Between April 2017 and November 2019 in Bristol, 20 planning applications for large screens application were stopped by Adblock Bristol, and 50 smaller screens. Adblock Brum have stopped 11 new digital screens since they launched in November 2019.

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 search for new applications. Google ‘planning portal [council]’ with the name of your council to find this. Once you’re in the planning portal webpage search: ‘advertisement’ and ‘advertising’ and ‘digital’.

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 Planning
Portal links are 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’).
● 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.

That blog post and photo can then be used 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 draft press release by email. 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 strategy

Local councils can immediately pass a 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 council presumption against planning applications for fracking, even though national legislation is currently in favour of fracking. You could lobby the council to introduce this policy in their ‘Local Plan’ or ‘Local Development Framework’ – each council has different versions and names for these.

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.

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. Digital billboards are hugely energy intensive. A bus stop size double ad screen uses 4 times the annual electricity of the average UK home.

How a local group fits into the national picture

In the short term, we want to support new groups to form so 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 public spaces, our environment and our wellbeing. We also want to champion alternative visions of our public spaces that celebrate public art, community connections and nature. 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 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, mental health impacts of being constantly pressured to consume – none of these are formally relevant at present. We are building 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 cities free from corporate advertising.

A community demonstration against digital advertising screens in Bristol