I think that I shall never see,Ogden Nash
A billboard lovely as a tree.
Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.
Advertising affects us all, whether we like it or not. You can read more about the impacts of advertising in general on our resources pages. But there are major concerns about billboards and other large scale outdoor advertising in particular. So, what’s the problem?
1. ‘It’s 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 for example, 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’.
Digital billboards are particularly distracting; being bright with changing images they are even more difficult to ignore.
A 2011 report on the ethics of advertising concluded that ‘we should be able to move in public spaces without being exposed to advertising’.
2. They 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.
See a statement from local businesses in Bedminster, Bristol on why billboards undermine the local economy.
3. They’re 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 manipulative 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.
Materialism has been shown to make us unhappy. Removing large and oppressive adverts from our city streets would help to break the cycle.
4. They’re wrecking the planet
Corporate advertising aims to create artificial needs, to keep us consuming even if we don’t need to. 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, so let’s take away the manipulative messages which are telling us to do the opposite, and undermining our ability to live more lightly on the planet.
Read more about the environmental impacts of consumer advertising
5. They 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. They 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 screen uses 11 times the electricity of the average British home. Even a small double-sided bus shelter screen uses four 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. They cause light pollution and harm wildlife
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.