Clear view on billboards

Earlier this year, Sao Paolo’s conservative mayor Gilberto Kassab made a radical decision when he introduced a Clean City Law that banned all public advertising in the metropolis, saying it constituted as “visual pollution.” All 15,000 billboards, outdoor video screens and ads on buses were removed.

The advertising industry threw up their arms in horror but the public will prevailed, with more than 70% of Paulistas approving, according to surveys, and some $8 million in fines issued to cleanse Sao Paulo’s urban landscape.

In Lebanon, such a development seems otherworldly. Take a drive north from Beirut to the Casino du Liban and you are bombarded with images of scantily clad ladies, scantily clad men, bottles of booze, tinned meat, watches, political propaganda, and so on.

Billboards obscure signposts and traffic dividers, in places, have adverts every five meters — it is serious overkill. Indeed, one of the reasons billboards are banned on highways in much of the world is because ads are a distraction, especially if you are a male with wandering eyes and an gargantuan image of a woman’s bursting cleavage heaves into view; just enough of a distraction to ram into the car in front.

It would arguably be all right if this plethora of billboards were confined to urban areas, but billboards pop out of the Lebanese landscape in the most wonderful spots — instead of an unimpaired view of a valley stretching into the distance you get to see a hair replacement ad. Nice.

It was not ever thus. In the early 1990s the billboard epidemic was similar to what it is today, with hoardings mushrooming all over the place as the country struggled to get back on its feet.

Then the government decided to tear down all the billboards and establish regulations that stipulate where billboards could be placed and the distance between each hoarding. There was a brief respite for the visually weary, and a few years later the practice started again, with a vengeance.

Although billboard companies are now individually abiding by the law by erecting hoardings 100 meters apart, the problem is that a firm will place their billboard in-between a rival’s, and have the next ad 100 meters on, meaning billboards are every 25 or 50 meters.

“There has been a total misapplication of the law and a major laissez faire by companies, sometimes municipalities, who have profited from the income,” said Danny Richa, president of the International Advertising Association’s Lebanon chapter. “This is in addition to a lot of political figures who profited from free adverts for the elections and gave backing and blessing to some companies to break the law.”

Herein lies the conundrum for the sector and the state. Billboards are a major income earner for cash-strapped municipalities, but the more billboards there are the less effective advertising becomes and the less money there is to be made by municipalities.

Richa said that in the first year after the regulations were enacted a company would need to advertise on just 200 billboards to get a result, with the average price of a 3×4 meter billboard $100 a week. Today, to get the same reach a company would need to advertise on 1,000 billboards, paying an average of $20-25 a week per hoarding.

“It’s costing billboard companies more to place these ads, maintain them, and bill post them, and the advertisers are getting less efficiency,” said Richa.

So what is to be done? Outdoor marketing is estimated at some $14 million a year (not including wall ads), an important income earner, and billboards do serve a purpose as a form of visual entertainment when stuck in traffic, as people increasingly are. Equally, outdoor adverts have proven to be morale boosters, such as after the July War when numerous companies lifted people’s spirits through witty billboard campaigns — something the international media picked up on and reported.

Part of the problem though is that alternative forms of advertising have not taken off in Lebanon, such as direct marketing or internet advertising, as mass advertising is cheap and effective in terms of geography and reaching the country’s small populace.

Going Sao Paulo’s route is therefore not an option for the foreseeable future. What is called for is tighter regulations, such as applied by Beirut’s municipality, which permits fewer billboards but charges higher prices.

“We have reached a point were we’d like the billboard owners to get together and immediately start to apply the law again by removing the excess, because if they don’t we will be obliged to lobby the government and could find a situation where all billboards are removed: the good, the bad, and the ugly,” said Richa.

The less draconian solution is to implement regulations area by area, fining violators and entitling companies that play by the book the visibility they are paying for. As for the countryside, let’s be able to see the valley without the billboards.

Paul Cochrane

Paul Cochrane is the Middle East Correspondent for International News Services. He has lived in Beirut since 2002, and has written for some 70 publications worldwide, covering business, media, politics and culture in the Middle East, East Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

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