It is being reported in The Times that Geneva is preparing to ban outdoor poster advertising from its streets. This follows a predictable ding-dong between left-wingers with a broadly based dislike of capitalism and consumerism in general and advertising in particular, versus right-wingers who think its all about the money and worry about the impact on the city's coffers. Given that this is Geneva we're talking about, you might think that money's not a problem, but in fact the city is massively in debt. Apparently its the Gnomes of Zurich who've got all the cash.
Around the world, a number of cities have dallied with bans on poster ads, from Grenoble in France, to Chennai in India, to Sao Paulo in Brazil. Results have been mixed, and some cities have subsequently relaxed their bans. Apparently the ban planned for Geneva may only affect 10% of poster sites, as the others are privately owned or carry public service messages, but it will depend on how the law is ultimately framed.
So would we ever follow suit in the United Kingdom? After all, one of the iconic views of London is of Piccadilly Circus, with its massive billboards. We don't seem to share the visceral dislike of billboards found in Grenoble or Geneva. A naked Piccadilly Circus, denuded of its colourful billboards, would look awful by comparison with colour and verve we've all come to know and love for about a century. You might say that Geneva could do with brightening up a bit as well, but I couldn't possibly comment.
It does seem possible, however, that local politicians in one of our cities with a proud architectural heritage might use a similar ban to garner support from their electorate. In Bath perhaps? Or York? Or Edinburgh? Cities with Metropolitan mayors, such as Andy Burnham in Manchester and Andy Street in Birmingham, may be the most likely candidates for this ruse, although surely those cities couldn't be made any more beautiful than they are already?
In London, Sadiq Khan has banned certain types of advertising from Transport for London's estate, such as ads for HFSS food or with too much bare flesh, but TfL presumably simply could not function without the revenues from poster advertising in general.
The comments from The Times' readers display a worrying and widespread antipathy to advertising. Pearls of wisdom include "Good riddance. Do the same in the UK" (with 56 recommends at the time of writing) and "Everything which helps consumerism harms our planet. Everything our politicians have done for the last century was aimed at increasing consumerism. G.D.P. is a false idol, Rishi" (17 recommends).
At first glance, the editorial line taken by The Times leader column is also somewhat surprising, opining that "Needless to say, the advertising industry opposes all such bans vehemently, often pointing out that the same level of advertising will remain, merely now relocated to print publications or the internet. In the opinion of this newspaper, this would not be too dreadful." This is unexpected from a newspaper with not usually known for its anti-capitalist leanings. On reflection, however, the "relocation" of advertising spend from posters to newspapers, such as The Times, for example, may not be "too dreadful" for the publishers of The Thunderer.
So what's the case in favour of poster advertising in the UK? Although The Times quotes David Ogilvy with approval, this ignores that fact that the location of poster sites is strictly controlled by our planning laws, which prevent our landscapes from being despoiled by commercial messages. Poster advertising also provides money for local authorities and employment for people in the advertising industry, as well as their legal advisors, all of whom pay tax. Like all forms of advertising, poster advertising stimulates competition and innovation. And last but not least, some out-of-home advertising is simply beautiful art, located in places that would be rendered grey and boring by its absence. A bit like Geneva.
"As a private person, I have a passion for landscape, and I have never seen one improved by a billboard. Where every prospect pleases, man is at his vilest when he erects a billboard." David Ogilvy