Billboard watchdogs clean up skylines

Aiming to clear out commercial clutter, billboard watchdogs from Rio to Toronto police outdoor ads.

By , Staff Writer

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    Toronto activist Rami Tabello, coordinator of the website IllegalSigns.ca which tracks illegal billboards throughout the city, logs new billboards into his phone in Dundas Square. Tabello works with city council, reporting billboards that are built without meeting the specifications of their permits — or without permits at all.
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Standing amid the assortment of new and old buildings in downtown Toronto, Rami Tabello clearly relishes his role as crusader: “Take a look at my handiwork,” he boasts, pointing to a rectangle of discolored brick several stories high on the side of a building.

There’s nothing there, nothing to see. And that’s the point. Mr. Tabello whips out his iPhone and calls up a photo of what once occupied the space: a giant vinyl Bleu Forêt billboard of women’s tights erected, he says, without a permit. That sign and more than 120 others in this city are gone now because Tabello successfully challenged their legality.

“Pretty cool, eh?” he says, continuing through his exhibit of absences on the sides of buildings – some older and lower, others newer, taller, shinier – where billboards once blared the messages of corporate giants.

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Then it’s on to the signs his organization is challenging: “I filed against that one,” says the billboard watchdog, gesturing to a F.E.A.R. 2 video-game banner parallel to the street. (They’ve got to be perpendicular, he explains.) “It will come down eventually,” he says. Of two H&M ads side by side, he says only one has a permit. A pair of Guinness ads high on a five-story building, meanwhile, “are just illegal in a million ways,” he says.

Tabello considers outdoor advertising like this pollution of public space – space that should be reserved for the public good. And he’s turned that sentiment into a crusade. In 2006, the former pension-fund consultant founded the nonprofit Illegal Signs Canada (IllegalSigns.ca), the mission statement of which is: “Our hobby is destroying illegal billboards with the rule of law.” That means 11 volunteers trolling for billboard infractions and reporting them to city officials.

Billboards advertising nearby businesses, “on-site” advertising, are safe. But “off-site” billboards, ads by major companies that now paper cities everywhere, get no mercy. Tabello – who patrols in his red Mini Cooper, with Britney Spears blaring – has filed 700 complaints against billboards.

His campaign is partly about aesthetics: “I don’t want to live in a Disneyland where all I see is corporate messages. I want to live in a diverse city and you’re not getting diversity with what H&M wants to sell you that day,” he says.

But he’s perhaps more driven by a desire to see everyone comply with democratically enacted laws. The discovery that much of Toronto’s outdoor advertising violates city regulations spurred him to take action, he says. By his count, half of the 4,000 signs in Toronto, Canada’s largest city, are illegal. (The city says it’s probably fewer.) “It’s a matter of private interests invading public space,” he says.

Tabello seems poised to score a major victory: In October, due in part to his “municipal activism,” the Toronto City Council will vote on – and many think pass – new bylaws for outdoor signs and a billboard tax. Revenue from the tax will fund enforcement. The tax, the final form of which is not yet articulated, will be far lower than projections by the Out-of-home Marketing Association of Canada (OMAC), says Ann Borooah, Toronto’s chief building official. (Earlier this year, OMAC estimated that tax proposals on the table then amounted to an industry-crippling 25 percent of revenue.) While it won’t be the first tax on billboards in North America, she says, it’s notable for its use of taxation as a regulatory tool.

“I’ve cost the city I don’t know how many millions,” says Tabello of the paperwork he has inflicted on the city. “Somebody has got to pay for it.”

Tabello belongs to a growing international grass-roots movement to control outdoor advertising.

“People are getting fed up” that sign companies have “determined what our public spaces are going to look like,” says Howard Moscoe, a Toronto city councilor. Tabello is forcing civil servants to be accountable for decisions they’ve made, he says “It’s helping us restructure the system to bring accountability in.”

Vermont, Maine, Hawaii, and Alaska ban billboards outright. In Philadelphia, SCRUB (Society Created to Reduce Urban Blight) claims it has gotten the city to remove 1,000 illegal billboards. In Los Angeles, the recently formed Coalition to Ban Billboard Blight works to stem the proliferation of digital billboards. Similar efforts exist in Houston, Tucson, and other smaller US cities.

The most dramatic evidence of the antiadvertising groundswell comes from abroad. In 2007, São Paulo, Brazil, South America’s largest metropolis, banned all “off-site” advertising, and greatly restricted “on-site” signage. Some 15,000 billboards were removed under the “clean city law.” Noting widespread public support for the law, Rio de Janeiro and Buenos Aires are considering bans of their own.

The movement takes inspiration from Jane Jacob’s 1961 book, “The Death and Life of Great American Cities.” Activists define public space as “sacrosanct,” and refer to violations of the unique character of cities by “mass market” advertising as “parasitic” and “invasive.” In some ways, their critique of consumer society is not new. But the voices are new and the context has shifted. Cities are actively reimagining themselves and their public spaces. Ideas about the commons that once belonged to the margin are increasingly mainstream. And they coincide with – and in some ways are prompted by – technological advances that promise to make outdoor advertising more ubiquitous, attention-grabbing, and better targeted than ever.

Vinyl signs can now wrap whole buildings. LED screens can cover entire building facades. People now face ad-playing screens in elevators, taxis, public bathrooms, and at gas pumps. Developers even include sign revenue – and spaces for billboards – in their construction plans. Depending on size and location, signs can earn property owners more than $100,000 monthly.

The profusion of outdoor advertising is partially due to consumers’ newfound ability to avoid ads elsewhere. Cable TV, satellite radio, and technology such as digital video-recording devices increasingly allow consumers to avoid ads. “Consumers hate advertising [and] always have,” says Greg Stuart, coauthor of “What Sticks: Why Most Advertising Fails and How to Guarantee Yours Succeeds.” “Except now they’ve got more control over what they do about it.” Advertisers are seeking to recapture that fleeing audience. The Internet is receiving the lion’s share of new ad money. But marketers are intrigued by the outdoor option – for the same reason those like Tabello revile it.

“You can’t turn it off,” says Bryan Christie, a Los Angeles resident with an electronic billboard displaying Virgin Air’s latest fare specials, among other things, outside his apartment window. “It’s not like TV where you can choose whether you’re going to watch it or not…. You have no choice. It’s always there.”

That’s what sets outdoor advertising apart, says Jeff Golimowski, a spokesman for the Outdoor Advertising Association of America (OAAA) in Washington, D.C. “Outdoor advertisements provide the best bang for the buck,” he says. “You can’t do the things that you would do with other media to escape outdoor advertising.”

Even as advertising industry polls show antiad sentiment on the rise, Americans generally rate billboards – a $7.2 billion industry in the US – as one of the least annoying forms of advertising. And are they really in public space, anyway? Bus stops and benches aside, they’re usually on privately owned buildings. And as Rob Ford, a Toronto city councilor against taxing billboards says, “If you don’t like the color of your neighbor’s house, you can’t change the color of his house. To each his own.”

Advertising industry defenders often invoke the right to commercial-free speech.

“Business entities have First Amendment rights just like individuals do,” says Eric Rubin, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who represents outdoor advertisers. “They’re clearly articulated by the US Supreme Court.” He points to the “Hillary” case: In 2008, Citizens United released a movie that cast Hillary Rodham Clinton in an unflattering light. At issue: Whether corporations have the right to political free speech, or whether that speech – in this case a movie – is subject to regulation by the Federal Election Commission. (The Supreme Court reheard the case Sept. 9.) “Every day, commercial entities assert their First Amendment rights,” says Mr. Rubin.
Industry advocates also argue that conveying information to consumers is necessary for the greater economic good. “Signs are [a way] to obtain information about brands, products, and goods and services,” says Mr. Golimowski.

Antibillboard groups say it’s more complicated. Billboards derive value from proximity to public thoroughfares; as in all advertising, the viewer’s attention is the commodity sold to the advertiser. Historically, advertising helped pay for something – newspapers, television, radio – in exchange for this access. But billboards offer nothing in return, argues James Twitchell, a retired professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida, Gainesville. “When you’re getting into my face and you’re not also improving my life in some way, then there’s no equitable argument,” he says.

Some find the “free speech” argument equally wanting. In a 2003 ruling in a Miami District Court, the judge wrote:

“[A]dvertising companies transform the proverbial First Amendment shield, intended to protect noncommercial speech, into a sword that assures their commercial well-being.”

Then there’s what Tabello and others characterize as the outdoor advertising industry’s disregard for the law. Industry associations insist that any illegal signs are due to inconsistent and outdated bylaws, and not intentional. But a New York district judge wrote earlier this year that the billboard industry regularly takes advantage of lax enforcement and ignores regulations. In 2007, Les Abro, CEO of Abcon Media, a Toronto-based billboard company, admitted as much in an interview with Canada’s Marketing Daily: “It’s widespread. It’s the nature of the beast – you either do it or you don’t do any business,” he said.

Fines levied against billboard companies are considered a cost of doing business, says William Brinton, a Florida attorney involved in more than 30 suits against billboard companies in the US. When challenged, the industry is quick to litigate – there are more than 100 cases pending nationwide, he says. Even Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor heard a case from Orchard Park, N.Y., when she was on the Second District Court of Appeals. (Ultimately, Orchard Park prevailed: no billboards allowed.)

Tabello, who’s admired for his tenacity by anti-billboarders everywhere, sees the industry’s “flouting” of laws as its ultimate downfall: “When you’re doing something that’s not legitimate, you can’t expect it to go on forever.”

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