I think that I shall never see,
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.

Ogden Nash

Advertising affects us all, whether we like it or not and often without us even realising it. Outdoor advertising (or out of home – OOH – as it’s known to the ad industry) is particularly harmful.

Billboards and free-standing ad screens have become a nearly unavoidable sight in our towns and cities, with tens of thousands all across the country.

You can read more about the impacts of advertising in general on our What We Do pages. But there are major concerns about billboards and other large scale outdoor advertising in particular.

So, what’s the problem?

1. Billboards are the one medium you can’t turn off

Billboards are unavoidable. While other forms of advertising in print, broadcast or online may be irritating, and raise ethical issues around data collection, we can take steps to avoid them. But we cannot avoid seeing a billboard or bus shelter advert on the street as we go about our day or look out of the window. They are designed to attract our attention. As the advertising industry itself boasts: ‘It’s the one medium you can’t turn off’.

The ever-growing number of billboards and ad screens, and the increasing shift to digital screens, makes advertising nearly unavoidable, raising important questions about our right to access and move in public spaces. Digital billboards are particularly distracting; being bright with changing images they are even more difficult to ignore.

A United Nations special rapporteur in the field of cultural rights found that outdoor advertising makes adverts ‘omnipresent’ in public space, resulting in a risk that billboards ‘obstruct people’s engagement with their environment, including parks, built heritage or the landscape, and, by exhorting people to become mere consumers, adversely affect their sense of citizenship.’

A scene inside a train station. People can be seen walking around the station whilst over head in the distance is a large digital billboard showing an advert for Prada.

2. Billboards promote large corporations over local businesses

The majority of adverts we see on billboards and bus shelters are for big brands. This kind of advertising is expensive, and means that local businesses are not able to compete. Local businesses return more money back into the local economy, supporting high streets and local employment. But the messages which dominate our streets are billboards ads telling us to buy from Tesco and McDonalds.

But the biggest spenders on outdoor advertising in 2022 included corporations like Amazon, KFC, McDonald’s, Coca Cola, Sky and Samsung. Hardly your local mom-and-pop business.

Read testimonies from local businesses in Bedminster, Bristol, on why billboards undermine the local economy.

3. Billboards are messing with our minds

Advertising exists to make us buy something we don’t need (otherwise why would they need to use cartoon tigers and celebrities to persuade us?). This is particularly true in the case of large scale outdoor adverts which are so often for big brand products like cars, junk food and fast fashion. Advertisers spend millions on sophisticate psychological manipulation techniques to make us choose their product, making us feel unsuccessful or unsexy unless we own this new shiny thing. It doesn’t make us happier, in the long term, so we are stuck in a cycle of wanting and consuming which never ends.

Excessive materialism has been shown to make us unhappy, and comes with a hefty price tag in the form of carbon emissions. Removing large and oppressive adverts from our city streets would help to break the cycle.

Artwork by Cartoon Ralph

4. Billboards are wrecking the planet

At a time when all of us are trying hard to live more sustainably, corporate advertising creates artificial needs to drive us to consume more, often via deliberately misleading messaging (hello, HSBC!).

But unsustainable consumption is depleting the planet’s finite resources, and driving dangerous climate change and ecological breakdown. Our public spaces should not be used to glamourise unsustainable lifestyles. It’s hard enough making more environmentally conscious choices without manipulative messages which are telling us to do the opposite, and undermining our ability to live more lightly on the planet.

5. Billboards exploit and deepen inequality

In Bristol, for example, there is a high concentration of billboards in the lower-income wards of Easton and Lawrence Hill. Major roads run through these areas, and billboards are situated alongside these roads to catch the attention of passing motorists. These areas also suffer from high levels of air pollution, despite Lawrence Hill having one of the lowest rates of car ownership. And yet car adverts are common on these billboards; many of them are for ludicrously expensive models which are out of reach of most of the people who live there.

Outdoor advertising companies themselves often argue that if an area is already full of billboards, it’s fine to add more, suggesting that if an area is run down it might as well continue that way. But really we should be aiming for all neighbourhoods to be pleasant and welcoming places to live.

6. Billboards use a huge amount of energy

The outdoor advertising industry is intent on ‘upgrading’ all advertising sites to digital billboards. These are more profitable than paper billboards, capable of showing several different adverts every minute, and their bright and frequently-changing images are more difficult to ignore. They are also very energy-intensive. One large digital billboard uses 11 times the electricity of the average British home. Even a small double-sided bus shelter screen uses three times as much. Councils across the UK are making bold plans to go carbon neutral, so adding more screens which use more energy makes no sense at all.

7. Billboards cause light pollution, harming wildlife and people

The Campaign for the Protection of Rural England says that light pollution in cities confuses birds, contributes to insect decline and causes health problems in humans too.

Light Aware says that the increase in artificial lighting in our cities has severely affected people with light sensitivity.

Read our briefing on light pollution, and check out Adfree Cities’ Charlotte on the Restoring Darkness podcast, discussing the harmful effects of outdoor digital advertising: