Several states and at least 1500 neighbourhoods in the US have passed laws heavily restricting outdoor advertising. Kick-starting a national conversation about conservation and the use of public space, Lady Bird Johnson (married to President Lyndon Johnson) pushed for advertising controls along the growing interstate highway, leading to the 1965 Highway Beautification Act.
“Man is at his vilest when he erects a billboard… When I retire from Madison Avenue, I am going to start a secret society of masked vigilantes who will travel around the world on silent motor bicycles, chopping down posters at the dark of the moon.”
— david ogilvy, the father of modern advertising, on billboards
Vermont introduced a state-wide billboard ban in 1968, giving owners of existing signs five years to take them down – although faced with some opposition from business and farming communities, Vermont subsequently saw tourist numbers increase and the state frequently tops national quality of life indexes. Maine, Hawaii and Alaska are also billboard-free, whilst Rhode Island and Oregon now prohibit the construction of new commercial signage.
Those in favour of ad-free cities argue that outdoor billboards are a form of ‘visual pollution’ that citizens have little or no say over – obscuring views, invading personal space, distracting drivers and pedestrians alike. Others believe that these hoardings are an inevitable part of the urban environment – sometimes entertaining, with businesses giving cities an additional source of revenue or very occasionally basic infrastructure (eg bus shelters or WiFi hubs) in return for advertising their products.
Nevertheless, across the world – from Auckland to Chennai – billboard restrictions continue to be enforced. Sao Paulo passed the ‘Clean City Law’ in 2006 leading to 15,000 boards taken down in the first year, whilst in 2015 Grenoble became the first European city to ban street advertising panels, planting trees in their place. There is also a growing movement in the artistic community to subvert advertising – in recent years both Paris and London have seen initiatives replacing commercial hoardings with reproductions of classical paintings, while the augmented-reality phone app ‘No Ad’ overlays New York subway posters with images created by street artists.