In Terry Gilliam’s 1985 dystopic future movie “Brazil,” intercity travel occurs within a corridor of billboards that simultaneously promote their product and block the view of the landscape. In Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie “Blade Runner,” humans and “replicants” go about their daily routine in a dreary, polluted cityscape where the biggest points of light and life are building-sized video advertisements. In both narratives, a proliferation of advertising in the public space was a symptom of a human future gone bad. We in Israel might take notice, because current trends suggest we are heading in that direction. Advertising, in various forms, is taking over our cityscapes and countryside. Our landscape is becoming an adscape.
The Ayalon thoroughfare, running through the heart of Tel Aviv, is an excellent example of our new adscape. From Tel Aviv University in the north to Arlozoroff station in the south, the highway commuter is bombarded with advertisements – some the size of the buildings themselves – for the newest model cellphone, women’s fashions, cars and sunglasses (along with the modest sign referring to the Lubovitcher Rebbe, for local flavor). Some of the adverts are funny, some boring, and others likely provocative and even offensive for large portions of the Israeli population (for instance, the invasion of the 15 meter bikini-clad supermodel). But one thing is certain: No commuter can make it through Tel Aviv without forcibly consuming, explicitly or subliminally, advertisements.
The same trend is poking its way into the rural landscape, as exemplified on the coastal highway. Large rectangular pillars poke out of the farmland, the gas stations, and the road-sides pushing products, sometimes using five or six consecutive building-sized pillars to repeat the message for a kilometer (as any good advertising executive will tell you, repetition of the message is the key to success). An advertisement of particularly offensive proportions now dominates the view for southbound traffic approaching Glilot Interchange. This particular billboard, along with others, is proudly promoted by its advertisement company – appropriately called “Huge Media” (Oops. I just gave them free advertising).
Billboards have long received the ire of environmentalists. Recall, for example, the particularly radical opposition described in Edward Abbey’s 1975 fiction, the “Monkey Wrench Gang,” whose protagonists prowled south-western United States burning down billboards in acts of environmental terrorism. But most environmental opposition is of the more mild sort – protest at the aesthetic eyesore despoiling the countryside.
But there are others who would also limit or stop the phenomenon of billboards in order to shield themselves and their children from our ruthless consumer culture. Advertisers in the US, according to the American Psychological Association, spend $12 billion per year to reach children – a high priority “market,” who view more than 40,000 commercials each year. Research has linked this flood of advertising to a host of negative impacts on child development, including poor eating habits, smoking and drinking alcohol, and even antisocial behavior (what parent has not experienced their child’s attachment to a brand?). Whereas we can shield our children by controlling television and radio use, and get them subscriptions to magazines such as “Einaim” (עיניים), which avoids including any advertising (this time I intentionally provided free advertising), we cannot protect our children from the billboards littering our cities and highways. Nor should we have to! The land and cityscape is public space that shouldn’t be handed over to private companies to use for selling their products.
Fighting against the trend of privatization of the landscape via advertising is a difficult task. Lots and lots of jobs and money are wrapped up in advertising. Some of this money makes its way to municipalities and regional councils, who sell public space to raise money for much needed public services. Some money makes its way to ostensibly good causes – such as the case of the Tzofim scouting group, who gained a bathroom at its summer camp site, paid for by the tampon company that now advertises there. But these aren’t acts of philanthropy – they are calculated business deals in which the primary beneficiary is the private company and, at best, some money goes back to the community alongside the relentless exposure to more advertising.
So what can be done? One of the most simple and best responses is to develop advertising immunity in our children. My tried and tested strategy is simply to make sure that your children know how many advertisers are trying to sell them things on TV, the internet, radio, in magazines and through signs and billboards – the awareness itself already grants the first layer of immunity. Next, if the advertisement is obstructing the landscape, then make a negative connection between the product and the environmental harm. We can site the study that connected billboards to traffic accidents. This way Hoodies, Carolina Lemke and Samsung and the rest can be associated not with the product on the billboard, but with the negative aesthetic impact of the billboard itself. A negative association is the exact opposite of what advertisers are trying to achieve, but we can do this in the name of good parenting and as an expression of our desire to prevent further proliferation of advertising across the landscape.
For the more committed, there is also the political and planning route. We have the right and responsibility to create the landscape we would like to see. If the majority of the population would rather see architecture and homes, fields and dunes, and hills and pastures, then we should make rules that keep advertising from obstructing our view. Citizens of various countries, including Brazil, Canada, the UK and the USA have made rules to limit the destructive aesthetic impact of billboards, from restricting their size and location to outright bans. So can we.
We can envision a future without public advertising, and all at once we could take back our landscape, spare our children from excessive consumerism and maybe even drive safer.