Walk down a street of almost any major city and one will be bombarded with colorful corporate logos, gaudy advertisements, and catchy jingles. In fact, there are few public places where one can go without being pressured into purchasing something or feigning interest in a private business. Despite the ubiquity of outdoor advertising, it is clear people believe ads are annoying and intrusive: Millions of Americans subscribe to streaming services such as Netflix and HBO primarily because they offer ad-free viewing; Adblock Plus, a popular browser extension, allows one to surf the web without seeing any ads. The aversion towards advertising has raised the question of whether American cities should implement their own restrictions. In spite of its radical nature, these bans are enforced around the world: São Paulo, Brazil’s largest city with a population of around eleven million, introduced a law against “visual pollution” in 2007. In 2014, Grenoble, France became the first city in Europe to ban commercial street advertising. Domestically, four states—Alaska, Hawaii, Maine, and Vermont—have outlawed billboards.
For many big businesses, any space is open for self-promotion. Several large stadiums and ballparks have long abandoned their historic names for corporate namesakes (e.g., Comiskey Park, once home of the Chicago White Sox, is now Guaranteed Rate Field). Some corporations have decided to take their marketing strategies to literal astronomical highs: in 2018, Elon Musk launched a Tesla car into space. Later that same year, the Washington Post reported NASA director, Jim Bridenstine, was open to slapping ads on rockets and having astronauts appear in commercials. Pride parades, born out of the 1969 Stonewall uprising, are now means for corporations to make a quick buck and for police departments to earn good PR. The omnipresence of ads in our towns, cities, social movements, and government entities has raised an important question: Who actually owns public space? Although many see this intrusion of ads as harmless and simply a means to save taxpayer dollars, it ignores the fact that these corporations are buying influence and actively working against the public interest.
Governments have long acknowledged commercial marketing can be harmful. Since 1970, tobacco companies have been barred from broadcasting ads on television and radio in the United States. Last year, London banned junk food ads on public transportation. The Canadian province of Québec has outlawed advertising to children under thirteen years of age. With the exception of the United States and New Zealand, all developed countries have banned prescription drug companies from marketing directly to consumers. While the majority of these examples are due to public health and safety, they highlight the advertising industry’s pervasive lack of working in the public interest. This isn’t surprising given the main goal of a business is to turn a profit, but unlike small businesses who are more or less beholden to the people in their neighborhoods, large corporations have free rein in deceiving the public on a much larger scale. The most blatant example is Amazon, whose labor abuses have once again been brought to the fore thanks to COVID-19. Its commercials, showcasing happy warehouse employees who state they are proud to work at the megacorporation, distract from the fact that Amazon is widely known for working against employee well-being and busting attempts at workplace organizing. One could argue Jeff Bezos is simply executing a dodgy PR campaign, but the pandemic has exposed decades of union busting and the erosion of workers’ rights have exacerbated a public health issue and economic precariousness. In April, the New York Attorney General’s office released a statement saying Amazon may have violated federal health and safety guidelines for not providing quality protections against the coronavirus and may have illegally fired warehouse employee Chris Smalls, who organized a protest. Unsurprisingly, Amazon has continued accruing massive profits, and, in spite of its shady workplace practices, has gone on a hiring spree.
Although one can turn off a commercial that openly deceives or flip to the next page in a magazine, there is no freedom of choice in viewing marketing ploys when walking down the street. Seeing one’s town or city covered in ads for businesses that endorse worker exploitation, questionable real estate deals, and conspicuous consumption send a message that the people do not own the public space. A city whose buses and trains are clad in Amazon ads may be less apt to take a stand against facial recognition technology and corporate surveillance. A town clobbered in BlueCross BlueShield billboards may opt to open a private health clinic instead of a public one. A county dotted with ComEd logos may decide against a publicly-owned utility. Given the lack of corporate sponsorship, public libraries and parks are perhaps an endangered species. These places are open to everyone, regardless of income or housing status—a rarity given increasing inequality and gentrification in major cities—and offer a respite from the constant barrage of consumerism. When visiting these places, individuals have the ability to literally sit and do nothing without being cajoled into buying a coffee or forced to listen to the latest goals and achievements of such-and-such corporate behemoth.
Since most cities have fairly lax restrictions on advertising, residents are usually forced to take measures into their own hands. This includes culture jamming, a guerrilla tactic popularized by Adbusters, and street art. The radical message these tactics send is the people own the neighborhood, not the major corporations who supply low-wage jobs and hoard profits overseas. Since these corporations possess a large portion of the market share—giving them the ability to compete for lower prices—they essentially block small businesses from moving into neighborhoods. Banning advertising could allow small businesses to have more influence in cities as well as promote local artists. After São Paulo banned outdoor advertising, much of its billboards were replaced with street art. In 2015, Tehran traded its billboard ads for art for ten days.
Banning outdoor advertising will not prevent corporations from continuing to creep into public spaces. The emergence of smartphones and virtual assistants has allowed corporations to peek into our most private spaces, and austerity budgets will continue to allow corporate sponsorships to be seen as desirable. Perhaps once citizens recognize the deception of advertising and the aesthetic benefits of an un-branded city, they will begin to question the necessity of consumerism itself.