Advertising fuels consumerism and overconsumption. One graphic representation of how much we are living beyond our environmental means is that in 2019, the world goes into ecological overshoot on July 29, because on that day, humanity will have already used nature’s resource budget for the entire year.

Such overshoot is only possible because we are depleting the ecosystems upon which the biosphere’s ability to regenerate depends. It is a gamble for how long that is possible before irreversible damage is done to our life-support systems leading to collapse. Over the past 20 years, the day in the year when we begin over-consuming has moved earlier in the year by three months to July 29, which is the earliest, and hence the worst, ever. Conservatively, this means that humanity is currently using nature 1.75 times faster than our planet’s ecosystems can regenerate, like relying on the resources from the equivalent of 1.75 planets like Earth.

But, to combat cultures of overconsumption, and the human and environmental costs they impose, cities around the world are pioneering initiatives to reduce what is being called the ‘visual pollution’ of excessive advertising.

On 1st January, 2007, Brazil’s biggest city, São Paulo, led by the city’s populist mayor, Gilberto Kassab, introduced the Clean City Law. The result was a near-total ban affecting billboards, digital signs and advertising on buses. Despite the threat to income for the city from advertising revenue, the ban was successfully enforced and changed the face of this huge metropolis, reducing the amount of external lighting and forcing the city to acknowledge the reality beneath.

Several other jurisdictions have also felt strongly about the impact of signage on the aesthetic of their environment and some are concerned about the impact of encouraging limitless consumption. Many US states strongly control public advertising and four have banned billboards completely. In Paris, rules were introduced to reduce advertising on the city’s streets by 30 per cent and cap the size of hoardings. Moreover, no adverts are allowed within 50 metres of school gates. The Indian city of Chennai banned billboard advertising completely, and Grenoble in France recently banned commercial advertising in public places in the city’s streets, to enhance opportunities for non-commercial expression. Several hundred advertising signs were replaced by tree planting and community noticeboards. In 2007, the municipal government of Beijing began reducing ads by targeting billboards for luxury housing. “Many use exaggerated terms that encourage luxury and self-indulgence which are beyond the reach of low-income groups and are therefore not conducive to harmony in the capital,” the city’s mayor, Wang Qishan, told The Wall Street Journal.

According to Worldwatch Institute research associate, Erik Assadourian, such laws are important in combating global warming. “It’s not simply greenhouse gases that cause climate change—it’s our consumer lifestyle that causes the greenhouse gases that cause climate change,” he notes. “Until we end consumerism and the rampant advertising that drives it, we will not solve the climate crisis.

Wider relevance

The Brazilian Clean City campaign was given huge backing by the public, despite a major campaign by the advertising agencies to get them to oppose it. It is also interesting because of two less predictable side-effects. The first was the growth of innovative graffiti art, so much so that Batman Alley, an area covered in street art, is now listed on Tripadvisor as one of the top places in Sao Paolo to visit. The second was that, without the billboards, some of the symptoms of various social problems – homelessness and gangs, for example – became much more obvious and were then next on the list for reform. For the first time, many residents were able to see long-standing favelas, or slum-like neighborhoods, that previously had been blocked from view by billboards. Sao Paulo’s City Hall says 474,000 new, affordable homes are still needed today in a city where about half a million families with an income up to about $1,500 per month are homeless. Occupy movements have become commonplace and some have successfully campaigned for access to land for public housing.

It is also interesting as an illustration of the power of big brands and how they try to circumvent such bans, often with the support of business or city officials concerned about revenue loss. In 2017, Sao Paolo’s then mayor João Doria, tried unsuccessfully to reintroduce advertising on a series of large LED screens around the ring road, in the name of raising funds for the city. Meanwhile, big brands have used graffiti sponsorship and other creative methods to ensure their products are visible to people on the street. Although the ban remains in place, advertising could return through the installation of information screens, interactive bus stop signs, and digital clock displays, many of which could accommodate advertising.

Context and background

Aesthetic problems with modern advertising are very well-known, but what really drives these changes is a rising awareness of the impact on people’s wellbeing. This starts early and so it is particularly important to consider the impact of advertising on children, who are even less able to filter out its influence. Street advertising cannot be turned off or otherwise removed from a child’s environment. Early conditioning towards eating eat junk food or drink, to being dissatisfied with body image or looks or lifestyle, and to adopting unaffordable consumer lifestyles show that children need protecting from the pressures of consumerism. The British Parliament passed legislation in 1874 intended to protect children from the efforts of merchants to induce them to buy products and assume debt. Some places still regulate strongly against advertising to children: Sweden, Norway and Quebec completely bar marketing to children under the age of 12. But many others rely on industry self-regulation (the US), albeit within a wider legal framework (UK).

Today, it is estimated that advertisers spend more than $12 billion per year to reach the youth market and that children view more than 40,000 commercials each year. This is having a detrimental impact: young children exposed to advertising are also seen to behave less socially, for example, engaging less with other children. According to Susan Linn, director of Campaign for a Commercial Free Childhood, advertising erodes children’s creative play, which she describes as the foundation of learning creativity and constructive problem solving, both of which are essential to a democratic society. This cascades down throughout our lives as adults, where the values of materialism and consumerism – and the idea that people are consumers first and citizens second – make us less satisfied with our lives and less able to reduce our consumption. Commercial advertising tends to push the values of materialism, linked to patterns of related overconsumption which display self-reinforcing and negative dynamics. In numerous, replicated studies, summarised by Prof Tim Kasser, it is shown that holding more materialistic values is an indicator for having relatively lower levels of well-being. Just being exposed to images of consumer goods triggers materialistic concerns, which makes us feel worse, and is linked to more anti-social behaviour.

Enabling factors

The success of the Sao Paolo move to clean up their city, known locally as ‘Cidade Limpa,’ was largely down to the huge local support it received, despite fears that the city would lose some of its colour. Some residents worried initially for financial, pragmatic and aesthetic reasons. Some were concerned the city would not only lose revenue from absent ads, but would have to actively spend money taking down the resulting ghost town of empty billboards. Other critics were nervous that without the colourful veneer of advertisements, the urban environment might look worse rather than better, unmasked as a gloomy concrete cityscape.

The law was fought at all stages by those with a vested commercial interest in buying and selling prime public ad space. Some in the business community warned that less lighting (by billboards and walls) would mean more dangerous streets, while Clear Channel Outdoor, one of the world’s biggest outdoor-advertising companies, sued the city, claiming the ban was unconstitutional. However, the advertising billboard market quickly unravelled as advertisers refused to commit to spending that might be banned. In the end, the law went into effect on January 1st, 2007, and businesses were given 90 days to comply or pay the price.

Some unexpected consequences of the ban included the city painting over murals by the world famous Sao Paulo artists Otavio and Gustavo Pandolfo, who were simultaneously showing at London’s Tate Gallery – an act that sparked outrage, but also a constructive discussion about the value of street art. Also, the removal of some large signs allowed people to see into poor squatter areas and previously hidden factories, and notice the poor conditions once they were no longer masked by huge advertising hoardings.

Although Sao Paolo remains notable because its widespread advertising ban is unusual, other cities have followed suit in part. In 2009, Chennai, India banned the erection of billboards, and several US states are billboard-free, including Vermont and Maine since the 1970s, Hawaii since the 1920s, and Alaska since 1998. In 2011, Paris set out plans to reduce the number of ad hoardings by a third. And earlier this year, Tehran replaced all its 1,500 advertising billboards with art for 10 days. A campaign to declutter streets by removing unnecessary signs and other obstacles started in London’s Kensington as an initiative by one innovative and determined politician, who chaired the relevant committee. It has since begun to spread around the UK with the support of organisations like Living Streets.

The latest and perhaps boldest attempt to un-brand public space comes from Grenoble, France, which, in 2014, became the first city in Europe to ban commercial street advertising. The mayor’s office stated that it was “taking the choice of freeing public space in Grenoble from advertising to develop areas for public expression” and replaced 326 advertising signs with community noticeboards and trees.

Scope and evidence

  • The Sao Paulo clean city advertisement ban resulted in the removal of 15,000 billboards and 300,000 storefront signs in a single year.
  • The ban in Sao Paulo continues to this day and has linked with moves by other cities, for example in the Westminster area of London, to declutter the streetscape in the name of road safety as well as aesthetics.
  • The law went into effect on January 1st, 2007, and businesses were given 90 days to comply or pay the price.
  • In 2014, the French city of Grenoble replaced 326 advertising signs with community noticeboards and trees.
  • In 2009, Chennai, India banned the erection of billboards.
  • Several US states are billboard-free, including Vermont and Maine since the 1970s, Hawaii since the 1920s, and Alaska since 1998.
  • In 2011, Paris set out plans to reduce the number of ad hoardings by a third.
  • In 2015, Tehran replaced all its 1,500 advertising billboards with art for 10 days.