What happens when a mayor decides to ban advertisements in a vibrant city of 11 million people with more than 8,000 billboards? Impossible, insane, absurd, or just plain genius? Well this is what happened this past January when mayor Gilberto Kassabs “Clean City” law was introduced in Sao Paulo Brazil banning any form of advertising throughout the city to rid of “visual clutter”. (reminds me of the “advertising is graffiti” stunt, or my dislike for posters in Milan)
I’ve always wondered what an ad-free environment would be like, how a persons behavior would change, or what a city’s culture and personality would become. I’m not sure how long this law will last, but for a huge city, its a definite moment to figure out the overall affects of ads in our spaces for the good or worse. The results have been surprisingly uplifting, peaceful, educational, and positive. As much as I hate and love the art of advertising, I must admit I can’t live without it, but then again, I’ve never lived in such an environment.
Read two articles by BusinessWeek and NPR(with a MP3 interview) then skip on over to photographer Tony de Marcos Flickr set of the changing cityscape, with insightful comments here.
I’ll post the articles with the MP3 interview and some pictures after the jump.
Photos by Tony de Marco
Sao Paulo: The city that said No to Advertising
The “Clean City” law passed last year by the populist mayor, Gilberto Kassab, stripped the Brazilian city of all advertising. So how’s it looking now?
A city stripped of advertising. No Posters. No flyers. No ads on buses. No ads on trains. No Adshels, no 48-sheets, no nothing.
It sounds like an Adbusters editorial: an activist’s dream. But in SÃ£o Paulo, Brazil, the dream has become a reality.
In September last year, the city’s populist right-wing mayor, Gilberto Kassab, passed the so-called Clean City laws. Fed up with the “visual pollution” caused by the city’s 8,000 billboard sites, many of them erected illegally, Kassab proposed a law banning all outdoor advertising. The skyscraper-sized hoardings that lined the city’s streets would be wiped away at a stroke. And it was not just billboards that attracted his wrath: all forms of outdoor advertising were to be prohibited, including ads on taxis, on busesâ€”even shopfronts were to be restricted, their signs limited to 1.5 metres for every 10 metres of frontage. “It is hard in a city of 11 million people to find enough equipment and personnel to determine what is and isn’t legal,” reasoned Kassab, “so we have decided to go all the way.”
The law was hailed by writer Roberto Pompeu de Toledo as “a rare victory of the public interest over private, of order over disorder, aesthetics over ugliness, of cleanliness over trashâ€¦ For once, all that is accustomed to coming out on top in Brazil has lost.”
Border, the Brazilian Association of Advertisers, was up in arms over the move. In a statement released on 2 October, the date on which law PL 379/06 was formally approved by the city council, Border called the new laws “unreal, ineffective and fascist”. It pointed to the tens of thousands of small businesses that would have to bear the burden of altering their shopfronts under regulations “unknown in their virulence in any other city in the world”. A prediction of US$133 million in lost advertising revenue for the city surfaced in the press, while the SÃ£o Paulo outdoor media owners’ association, Sepex, warned that 20,000 people would lose their jobs.
Others predicted that the city would look even worse with the ads removed, a bland concrete jungle replacing the chaos of the present. North Korea and communist Eastern Europe were cited as indicative of what was to come. “I think this city will become a sadder, duller place,” Dalton Silvano, the only city councillor to vote against the laws and (not entirely coincidentally) an ad executive, was quoted as saying in the International Herald Tribune. “Advertising is both an art form and, when you’re in your car, or alone on foot, a form of entertainment that helps relieve solitude and boredom,” he claimed.
There was also much questioning of whether there weren’t, in fact, far greater eyesores in the cityâ€”such as the thousands of homeless people, the poor condition of the roads and the notorious favelas: wouldn’t Kassab’s time be better spent removing these problems than persecuting taxi drivers and shop owners? Legal challenges followed while, in an almost comical scenario, advertising executives followed marches by the city’s students and its bin men by driving their cars up and down in front of city hall in protest.
Nevertheless, the council pressed ahead. “What we are aiming for is a complete change of culture,” its president Roberto Tripoli said. “Yes, some people are going to have to pay a price but things were out of hand and the population has made it clear that it wants this.”
Originally, the law was to be introduced last autumn with immediate effect but it was first delayed until December and then finally introduced in January 2007 with a 90-day compliance period, supposedly giving everyone time to take down any posters or signs that did not meet the new regulations or face a fine of up to US$4,500 per day. Throughout that period, the city’s workmen were busy dismantling around 100 sites per day, occasionally supervised personally by Kassab, a man with an obvious eye for a photo opportunity.
In theory, 1 April was the first day of SÃ£o Paulo’s re-birth as a Clean City. So what does it feel like?
“I can’t tell you what it’s like to live in a city without ads yet,” says Gustavo Piqueira, who runs the studio Rex Design in SÃ£o Paulo, “because in a lot of places they still haven’t been removed. In Brazil, every time that some new law comes in, everybody waits a little to see if it will really be applied and seriously controlled, or if it’s just something to fill the newspapers for a week or two.”
In a lot of places, Piqueira says, this has led to the removal of posters but not the structures on which they were displayed. “It’s a kind of ‘billboard cemetery’. I guess they’re waiting to see if the law will really last. If the mayor keeps the law for a year or so, people will start to remove them and the city will, finally, start to look better.”
Photographer and typographer Tony de Marco has been out documenting this strange hiatus in a sequence of images published on Flickr and used to illustrate this piece. The city, he says, is starting to feel more “serene”.
Already the law has led to some strange discoveries. Because the site-ing of billboards was unregulated, many poor people readily accepted cash to have a poster site in their gardens or even in front of their homes. With their removal, a new city is emerging: “Last week, on my way to work, I ‘discovered’ a house,” says Piqueira. “It had been covered by a big billboard for years so I never even knew what it looked like.” The removal of the posters has “revealed an architecture that we must learn to be proud of, instead of hiding,” says de Marco.
But there are downsidesâ€”Piqueira worries that much of the “vernacular” lettering and signage from small businessesâ€””an important part of the city’s history and culture”â€”will be lost. The organisers of the SÃ£o Paulo carnival have also expressed concerns about the long-term future of their event now that sponsors will not be allowed to advertise along the route. The city authorities for their part have made it clear that certain public information and cultural works will be exempted from the rules.
After a period of zero tolerance, Piqueira believes that advertising, albeit in a far more regulated form, will start to creep back into the city, either as a result of legal challenges, a change in administration, or compromises between media owners and the city. Already, the council has stated that it would like to see the introduction of approved street furniture such as bus stops, which may well carry ads. As these will no doubt be for the major brands that can afford such lucrative positions, a more sterile, bland visual environment may replace the vibrant, if chaotic streets of the past. Flyposters, hand-lettered signs and club flyers will remain banned while international ad campaigns for global brands on city-approved poster sites will return.
For de Marco, though, “the low quality of the letters and the images on those immense pieces of propaganda” were always a concern, as was “the misuse and occupation of public space. In the weeks before my birthday,” he says, “my visual enemies begin to disappear like the happy end of a motion picture. To see my city clean was my best birthday present and my photos were the record of the feast.”
Meanwhile, according to Augusto Moya, creative director of ad agency DDB Brasil, the ban is forcing agencies to be more inventive. “As a creative, I think that there is one good thing the ban has brought: we must now use more traditional outdoor media (like bus stops and all kinds of urban fittings) in a more creative way,” he says. “People at all the agencies are thinking about how to develop outdoor media that do not interfere so much in the physical structure of the city.”
Moya takes an enlightened view of the law. “As a citizen, I think that future generations will thank the current city administration for this ban,” he says. “There’s still a lot to be done in terms of pollutionâ€”air pollution, river pollution, street pollution and so on. SÃ£o Paulo is still one of the most polluted cities in the world. But I believe this law is the first step for a better future.”
And even if some Paulistanos remain unconvinced, there is at least one group who are certainly not complainingâ€”the city’s scrap dealers, who are set to make a killing from recovering all the old signs and structures.
In January, South Americaâ€™s largest city officially banned outdoor advertising. Billboards, neon signs, bus-stop ads, even the Goodyear blimp – all were suddenly illegal. Folha de Sao Paulo reporter Vinicius Galvao describes seeing his city as though for the first time.
BOB GARFIELD: On January 1st, 2007, a funny thing happened in Sao Paulo, Brazil. The city of approximately eleven million people, South America’s largest, awoke to find a ban on public advertising. Every billboard, every neon sign, every bus kiosk ad and even the Goodyear blimp were suddenly illegal.
The ban on what the mayor calls “visual pollution” was the culmination of a long battle between the city’s politicians and the advertising industry, which had blanketed Brazil’s economic capital with all manner of billboards, both legal and illegal. Within months, the city has gone from a Blade Runner-like vision of the future to a reclaimed past.
Vinicius Galvao is reporter for Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper, and he joins us now. Vinicius, welcome to the show.
VINICIUS GALVAO: Oh, thank you. I appreciate it. It’s my pleasure.
BOB GARFIELD: I’ve seen photos of the city, and it’s amazing to see this sprawling metropolis completely devoid of signage, completely devoid of logos and bright lights and so forth. What did Sao Paulo look like up until the ban took place?
VINICIUS GALVAO: Sao Paulo’s a very vertical city. That makes it very frenetic. You couldn’t even realize the architecture of the old buildings, because all the buildings, all the houses were just covered with billboards and logos and propaganda. And there was no criteria.
And now it’s amazing. They uncovered a lot of problems the city had that we never realized. For example, there are some favelas, which are the shantytowns. I wrote a big story in my newspaper today that in a lot of parts of the city we never realized there was a big shantytown. People were shocked because they never saw that before, just because there were a lot of billboards covering the area.
BOB GARFIELD: No writer could have [LAUGHING] come up with a more vivid metaphor. What else has been discovered as the scales have fallen off of the city’s eyes?
VINICIUS GALVAO: Sao Paulo’s just like New York. It’s a very international city. We have the Japanese neighborhood, we have the Korean neighborhood, we have the Italian neighborhood and in the Korean neighborhood, they have a lot of small manufacturers, these Korean businessmen. They hire illegal labor from Bolivian immigrants.
And there was a lot of billboards in front of these manufacturers’ shops. And when they uncovered, we could see through the window a lot of Bolivian people like sleeping and working at the same place. They earn money, just enough for food. So it’s a lot of social problem that was uncovered where the city was shocked at this news.
BOB GARFIELD: I want to ask you about the cultural life of the city, because, like them or not, billboards and logos and bright lights create some of the vibrancy that a city has to offer. Isn’t it weird walking through the streets with all of those images just absent?
VINICIUS GALVAO: No. It’s weird, because you get lost, so you don’t have any references any more. That’s what I realized as a citizen. My reference was a big Panasonic billboard. But now my reference is art deco building that was covered through this Panasonic. So you start getting new references in the city. The city’s got now new language, a new identity.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, cleaning up the city’s all well and good, but how do businesses announce to the public that they’re open for business?
VINICIUS GALVAO: That was the first response the shop owners found for this law, because the law bans billboards and also even the windows should be clean. Big banks, like Citibank, and big stores, like Dolce and Gabbana, they started painting themselves with very strong colors, like yellow, red, deep blue, and creating like visual patterns to associate the brand to that pattern or to that color.
For example, Citibank’s color is blue. They’re painting the building in very strong blue so people can see that from far away and they can make an association with that deep blue and Citibank.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the city has said, having undertaken this effort, it will eventually create zones where some outdoor advertising will be permitted. Do you expect Sao Paulo eventually to just revert to its previous clutter?
VINICIUS GALVAO: Not to revert to previous clutter, but I think like very specific zones, I think they’re going to isolate the electronic billboards in those areas, in the financial center. I don’t think they should put those in residential areas as we had before.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, the advertising industry is obviously not happy about this. They’re complaining that they’re deprived of free speech and that it’s costing them jobs and revenue. But is there anyone else in Sao Paulo who’s unhappy about this? Tell me about the public at large. What’s their view?
VINICIUS GALVAO: It’s amazing, because people on the streets are strongly supporting that. The owner of the buildings, even if they have to renovate a building, they’re strongly supporting that. It’s a massive campaign to improve the city. The advertisers, they complain, but theyâ€™re agreeing with the ban. What they say is that we should have created criteria for that to organize the chaos.
BOB GARFIELD: Vinicius, thank you very much for joining us.
VINICIUS GALVAO: Thank you so much.
BOB GARFIELD: Vinicius Galvao is a reporter for Folha de Sao Paulo.