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Time for a Commercial Break?
Column by Noel Douglas, July 2006
Have you found that while waiting for the 73 bus you hear voices?
Or have you come away from the stop for the 149 smelling of the latest fragrance from Givenchy?
Well, fear not, you're not going insane - these are just a few of the bus stop shelter "innovations" that companies like JC Decaux are promoting as outdoor advertising gimmicks to try to tempt the pound from out of your pocket.
Outdoor advertising only accounts for about 9 percent of all advertising revenue in Britain, but arguably, its commercial and psychological impact is disproportionate. As ad company Clear Channel says on its website, "When people are at their most inaccessible, billboards have the power to inform, entertain and persuade. They are unavoidable, larger than life, can't be switched off, free to be consumed, and importantly, provide a cost-effective way of reaching thousands of people every week."
Year on year this market in outdoor advertising has been increasing - figures for 2003 showed a year on year growth of 10.4 percent. Companies such as Clear Channel, JC Decaux and Primesight dominate the roadside market in Britain. These companies are also political actors. JC Decaux, for example, subsidises what is known as "street furniture", installing and maintaining bus shelters, street signage and information kiosks in return for the right to advertise on them, while Clear Channel, a company with media outlets in 66 countries, owns 700,000 billboards and has given active support for George Bush's war in Iraq.
There is little or no debate about how undemocratic this use of space is, nor in whose interest it is used, let alone the effect the clutter of advertising outside has on our sense of ourselves and the places we live in. It says much about how the commodification implicit in neo-liberal economic expansion has come to dominate our existence, geographically and spatially, in the city as well as in the workplace.
But resistance exists. And, as with many other issues at the moment, French activists have taken a lead with their Anti-Pub (Anti-Ad) movement.
Arising out of the anti-capitalist movements, it is in a tradition that can be traced back to Surrealism's fascination with the city, and to the events of May 1968 in Paris. Then the Atelier Populaire poster workshop pumped out images for the revolution from the occupied university, Ecole des Beaux-Arts, while various poetic pieces of Situationist-inspired graffiti adorned the walls of Paris. Today two key groups, Résistance à l'Agression Publicitaire and Brigades Anti-Pub, embody the spirit of collective, creative street protest against commodity capitalism and its advertising system.
Organised in networks of local groups across France, both groups regularly go out onto the streets and, among other things, graffiti billboards, take ads out of their casings to leave the shells empty, rip down wall posters, and paste slogans or blank pieces of paper over ads. This public civil disobedience has led to arrests for vandalism, but to some surprise the "Anti-Pubs" have been successful in getting fines reduced by judges who accept their arguments about the undemocratic nature of advertising, and its use of "public" space.
The Brigades Anti-Pub first came to attention late in 2003 - around the time of the European Social Forum in Paris. Two actions within a number of weeks saw up to 100 people collectively deface, rip off the wall, or graffiti every poster and ad in the Paris Metro that they could. This was part of a much wider struggle of what were called the "intermittents du spectacle" (part-time, seasonal and casualised cultural workers) who were facing benefit cuts from the Raffarin government as part of the general neo-liberal offensive against the welfare state.
The intermittents' struggle hit a high with occupations of opera houses and the closing down of most of the summer festivals in France during 2003. It also caused disruption to France's version of Pop Idol, Star Academy, where a group of protesters broke into the live transmission. They halted proceedings and then read aloud their list of demands while unfurling a banner which said, "Turn off your TV now!"
Currently, Résistance à l'Agression Publicitaire are organising protests in 13 towns and cities across France to highlight the waste of junk mail - which stands at 40 kg per person, per year. Protesters are being encouraged to bring their junk mail and ceremonially dump it in an appropriate public space, say outside the town hall, on the same day.
Brigades Anti-Pub are calling for a legal maximum size for any commercial billposting display of 50 cm by 70 cm (this size is already in force for political postering in Paris). They are also demanding a strict constraint of the density of adverts, and the removal of luminous and animated panels. Anti-Pub are coordinating public anti-advertising civil disobedience every month in over six cities in an attempt to achieve this.
Whose streets? Our streets!
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