“I know the bill is radical, but it’s emblematic…It’s controversial, but it’s necessary for the city.”
Gilberto Gassab, mayor of Sao Paolo, Brazil, the world’s fourth largest metropolis, said this in reference to a recently-passed ordinance that forbids outdoor advertising within the city. Since then, owners of all ad space throughout Sao Paolo have quickly stripped walls, buses, billboards, and buildings of their signage in order to avoid steep fines now enforced by the city government.
What you had in Sao Paolo prior to 2007 was a city smothered by visual pollution. Advertisers had covered the city up—both legally and illegally—to the extent that the city’s visual identity seemed less associated with its architecture and landscapes and more with words and images from “Coke,” “Levi’s” and “Toyota.” This phenomenon has not been limited to Sao Paolo, Brazil. The blanketing of public space by advertisers has plagued virtually every city across America and many municipalities throughout other parts of the West in general. Ad pollution comes in many forms. There’s corporate signage: “Big Box” stores like Best Buy and Wal-Mart prop their store names on top of 30’ high steel beams. There are bill boards, which seem to have no limit as to where they’re placed (along an freeway, right up on the wall of your own apartment building, etc.). What bus or subway isn’t crammed inside out with ads? Everywhere these ads scream out their messages, hammering every individual with hundreds or thousands of words and images each day. Los Angeles is an excellent example of an city laid waste by advertisements. When you compare pre-WW2 photographs of areas (that are still intact) with what exists of it now, there is barely any resemblance. Aside from many of its architecural landmarks having been knocked down, what’s left of its former visual beauty is now littered heavily with ubiquitous ads. Paris, France on the other hand has managed to avoid this. It is easy to conceive how that city’s popularity and high regard would fare if its public space were covered with billboards and signage the way Los Angeles or even my home town of Shreveport, Louisiana is.
Interestingly, once Sao Paolo stripped itself of all its signage, people began discovering aspects of the city that they previously had not known, like what some of the buildings actually look like (i.e., architectural style). One rather extreme example mentioned in the latest issue of Adbusters was the sudden discovery of a small shantytown that had until then been tucked away in a nook of the city and curtained off by billboards. Some shops whose windows had been cleared of ads suddenly revealed Columbian immigrant workers sleeping overnight in the shops where they were employed by day!
The difference that this has made on the city is apparently positive and nothing less than remarkable.
In order for businesses in Sao Paolo to identify themselves, they have resorted to painting their buildings vibrant colors, like yellow, red, deep blue, etc. People now associate businesses like Citibank or Dulce & Gabbanna with these colors.
Sao Paolo is perhaps the first metropolis to pass this sort of ordinance, but other municipalities here in the United States have done the same. The northern California city of Carmel-by-the-Sea is free of ads. It belongs to a county that banned neon signs and billboards along the highways throughout the county. Carmel was the first city in the United States to enact a ban on formula restaurants, such as McDonalds, Burger King, all things chain and fast food. The rules for the ban can be viewed here. Take a stroll through this quiet little town and you’ll find that what attracts people to it—namely its peacefulness and beauty—would be vastly diminished with the presence of corporate fast-food businesses and advertising.
There is something to be said about the old saying, ‘look good, feel good.’ Carmel is an excellent example of practicing such philosophy. I wish that other towns and cities across America had the same guts to pass ordinances banning advertisements from public space. It would help lift appearance of much of this country out of that of a third-world country.