MANILA, OCTOBER 12, 2006 (STAR) COMMONNESS By Bong R. Osorio - In the past few days, serious concern about billboards has generated a sizeable share of ink and debate. After typhoon Milenyo’s "air power" subsided and news of the death and destruction caused by falling billboards started to come in, an outraged public unleashed its anger on this ubiquitous marketing communication tool. It cannot be helped. Many of these humongous advertising structures succumbed to Milenyo’s might, killing a hapless driver and destroying properties.

Opposing views on the billboard issue were put forward in columns, editorials and news pieces and to this day, the issue continues to hog the front pages and primetime news. On one end, there are those who are strongly pushing for its strict regulation, if not total abolition, and on the other, there is an outdoor advertising industry defending itself from various outcries.

Leading the resistance is Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago, who last year filed Senate Bill 1714 to regulate the installation of billboards and oblige outdoor advertisers to comply with safety requirements, labeling Metro Manila as "billboard hell" and berating some of these ad configurations as pests bordering on the immoral. Sen. Nene Pimentel called for a total ban on billboards along major streets, saying that aside from the dangers they pose when they collapse, they distract motorists.

John Silva of the National Museum and the Heritage Conservation Society has long been against what he calls unsightly and cluttered visuals and messages put side by side and on top of each other. Citing studies on billboards and the mess they bring, Silva says they could raise blood pressure levels, sidetrack motorists and create accidents, and now can fall and kill. He adds that billboards can even shrink real estate values and depress tourism.

Guardians of the billboard business, in its defense, cite its economic contribution, but Silva believes otherwise, declaring that a fallen billboard not only creates traffic snarls but is a national calamity as well.

Representatives of the Philippine outdoor industry have reacted to public dismay and bewilderment. They are amenable to more and stricter regulations, but not to a total ban. As they say this, they also point to the economic impact of an industry that puts millions of pesos a year into the local economy. And this must be carefully considered in the way it should be regulated. They underscored the reality that banning billboards and signage will cause a significant financial loss for many different sectors of the economy.

The Times Square Model

New York is an example of a city in the world that has vibrant public spaces and decent urban planning. Specifically, it has Times Square as a showcase of vigorous, sparkling outdoor advertising that many residents and visitors alike believe can enhance a public space and make it a must-see place. Tourists can’t leave the Big Apple without taking a lingering walk down this pulsating spot, preferably beginning at sunset when all the lights begin to assume a starring role and enrapture its street audience. New York City’s image is inextricably linked to its billboards. Nearly one third of all postcards depicting its skyline or neighborhoods feature a billboard or a cluster of signs.

A PR Web report revealed that New York’s local government, however, has begun to crack down on what is called "corporate graffiti." With little fanfare or public debate, the Bloomberg administration has launched a campaign that will make it harder for businesses to advertise their products and services on the streets of New York City and its arterial highways. Enforcing Local Law 31, new limits on outdoor advertising will be put into effect. Supporters say the initiative is necessary because of safety concerns and the threat of "visual clutter."

The support of restrictions by some groups on NY public signage represents a turnaround from the position they took in the mid-1980s when city officials proposed turning Times Square into an elegant boulevard stripped of its marquee lights and gigantic illuminated billboards. At that time the public took the lead to preserve the advertising. The City relented when Times Square property owners simultaneously turned off the lights, plunging the Great White Way into darkness. Case closed: the signs stayed put. It was a powerful message that NY City’s image was inextricably linked to its billboards.

New Yorkers who oppose the law believe that eradicating outdoor advertising from the skyline seems to be a solution in search of a problem. Simply put, there is no public outcry to take down or alter these signs. On the contrary, people actually like billboards. Three in four Americans polled by the market analyst group Penn & Schoen said that they found billboards useful, and a lot of those people seem to make their way to New York City. Outdoor advertising combines commerce and art in a uniquely imaginative way that enriches urban space. And corporations and advertisers aren’t the only ones who gain. Artists and designers benefit from new exposure and expressive freedom. And the public does as well. So they are asking, just what is behind New York’s newly aggressive move to limit outdoor advertising?

Brazil’s Experience

In the chaotic urban sprawl of Sao Paulo, Brazil’s biggest city, the impact of advertising is impossible to ignore. As Robert Plummer of BBC News reported, massive billboards and skyscraper-sized hoardings line the streets of the capital city, flaunting their wares at motorists caught in the city’s ever-present traffic jams. The choice of products on display sometimes bears witness to the uninhibited nature of Brazilian society. A remarkable number of ads feature giant images of men and women dressed only in their underwear, while the Brazilian edition of Playboy is publicized with huge posters and cutouts of the latest centerfolds. Sounds familiar, don’t you think?

It all adds to the sensory overload of a city that many see as South America’s version of the high-tech cityscape portrayed in the film Blade Runner. But Sao Paulo’s mayor, Gilberto Kassab, takes a dim view of this non-stop barrage of product promotion, much of which, admittedly, has been put up illegally. He calls it "visual pollution" and if he has his way, all big public advertising displays will soon be banned from the city.

Just like in New York, Manila and many parts of the world, Kassab has submitted a bill to the Sao Paulo city council that will completely change the urban environment, prohibiting practically all outdoor ads in their present form. Kassab knows that the bill is radical, but in the same breath believes it is emblematic, controversial, and necessary for the city. Ordinary residents of Sao Paulo are not too keen, though, fearing that the city’s gray concrete will look even grayer without the generous splashes of color provided by outdoor advertising.

The advertising industry in Brazil is taking the Kassab bill very seriously. It has created a lot of insecurity among firms who have invested heavily and long-term in outdoor media, because the contracts are very short-term. As in the Philippines, the outdoor medium is polluted, it’s confused, but it’s cheap. The nine-meter by six-meter billboards are losing ground. The gigantic hoardings on the walls of buildings are losing ground, because no one’s going to invest a lot of money without knowing whether it will all still be legal in two, three or four months’ time.

Reducing billboard clutter is a difficult task, and one that will definitely be opposed by the outdoor advertising industry. Many are of the opinion that one way to do so, and perhaps the most effective way, is to ban the construction of new billboards, thus reducing the number of billboards as some are removed or resized.

The extent that billboards should be permitted raises vehement policy and legal arguments. The outdoor advertising industry argues that billboards are an effective, low-cost method of delivering an advertising message to a large number of people, and that the industry gives employment to some 40,000 people. Others, however, consider them eyesores or elements that assault the aesthetic sense of Filipinos, and thus should be reduced or totally eliminated. Which party do you support? Which way do you go? Is outdoor advertising corporate graffiti or a marketing tool?

There should be a win-win solution to any problem, and the billboard dilemma is no exception. Indeed, it has many facets – safety, economy, and urban planning, among others. National and city government officials, the outdoor advertising industry, environmental advocates and the general public must continue the debate. The issues surrounding the dilemma must be carefully studied, considering the impact of any final verdict to its various stakeholders.

Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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