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A Serious Proposal: The City of Buenos Aires Should Ban Outdoor Advertising

By | [email protected] | November 26, 2013 3:39pm

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In 2006, an aggressive proposal, the “Lei Cidade Limpa” or Clean City Law, was submitted by the mayor of São Paulo, Gilberto Kassab, to his city council. The idea was radical: Kassab proposed a near-complete ban on outdoor advertising. That’s right, no more outdoor billboards. No more giant signs overhanging transport corridors. Highways and city streets were stripped of these — and businesses weren’t exempt either, now forced to abide by strict new laws regarding the size of both office and shop-front signs. Only a few exemptions like bus stop and special government advertising remained. Kassab’s motivation was explained to be a rare streak of idealism in Brazilian politics:

“The Clean City Law came from a necessity to combat pollution … pollution of water, sound, air, and the visual. We decided that we should start combating pollution with the most conspicuous sector – visual pollution.”

The truth, of course, is a little more complicated than that — as it always is in Latin American politics. Nonetheless it was a bold vision deserving of praise, and quite an achievement: The owners of the billboard leasing agreements was Clear Channel Communications, a US$6 billion in annual revenue juggernaut. Multinationals like them are not normally the type of company targeted by a mayor like Kassab — as a member of the center-right Partido Social Democratico, Kassab ran on being pro-business, not as an anti-pollution left-wing type.

After doing some reading and thinking about it more, I came to a realization: Buenos Aires should follow suit.

Of course there’s a million reasons why they shouldn’t, couldn’t or wouldn’t:

  • “Buenos Aires is too corrupt, and any revenue source will never be sacrificed for something as frivolous as ‘greater good'”.
  • “Where would you draw the line between different types of advertising, and what about political campaign posters?!”
  • “There’s too much already invested in billboard advertising to go back now.”
  • “Big business won’t like this.”
  • “Macri isn’t exactly the most progressive guy, it’s laughable to think he’d even consider it.”

 

Now, allow me to address all of these points.

  • “Buenos Aires is too corrupt, and any revenue source will never be sacrificed for something as frivolous as ‘greater good'”.

This is the most obvious one — and the most cynical — but it highlights the inescapable realism that must be considered in every Argentina-centric proposal. Could this actually get done? Let’s start with an often overlooked yet obvious starting point: The city laws themselves. ‘Ley 2936‘, enacted in 2008, was an attempt at formalizing a messy system.

So how effective could a city government in Argentina really be at changing laws? Well, it just so happens there’s a case for that: Mar Del Plata. In 2011, the city council enacted a new criteria for the placement and size of advertising. Citizens became tired of this ‘visual pollution’ — not only was it making the tourist town less friendly, but also made the streets less safe. Intersections were slowly becoming overgrown with billboards, making road safety a major issue — not just for cars, but pedestrians too. For years residents were demanding changes and eventually the city council came to the rescue, compiling a new law with a list of changes, removing offending billboards and consolidating others with a centralized approval system. And it was a rousing success.

In conjunction with Banco Provincia, Mar Del Plata’s council established a line of credit for the billboard industry, who would now need new investment in order to execute this positive but still theoretical framework. And it worked: Eye-sore billboards and dangerous over-hanging corner signs became a thing of the past. The billboards that remained were now paying their dues and taxes, and a new army of workers kept the structures themselves clean and in-check. So the local government, businesses and citizens came together to create and enforce a plan that greatly enhanced the city. But don’t take my word for it, here’s Leandro Laserna speaking 14 months after the change:

“The balancing is very positive, as in the beginning this had its resistance, and was a very big change for the city. We understand that in the 14 months we gave the extension, the communication and the explanations had made it that the commercial sector would have to achieve something of this magnitude, and almost 80% have adopted it and understand that now comes the best part. Underneath the cartels had been holding on to things that weren’t the best for Mar del Plata, and what’s come out now is adding value and beautifying the city, bringing out the historical nature of the commercial walkways.” [Emphasis Added]

See, Argentines can work together — and even take on normally thorny questions like financing, law enforcement and compromise for the greater good. The success story of Mar del Plata (now reveling in ever increasing tourism numbers, which could be for other reasons I’ve explained) sends a powerful message to a country that is struggling with an image issue: Big changes for the common good can happen with the right attitude. I see no reason why Buenos Aires couldn’t take a lead from Mar Del Plata and do the same.

  • “Big business won’t like this and will stop it from happening.”

If there was one surprise from the Sao Paulo experience, it’s that the only staunch opposition were the billboard owners themselves. Other large companies embraced the change. The reason is simple: Advertising, like many other things in life, loses its power once we become accustom to it. A desensitized consumer is a tougher consumer to sell to. Not only that, it encouraged businesses to get creative with their use of color and space. No longer would lazy posters dominate their storefront. Instead design and feel became the philosophy behind the marketers’ campaigns to win the brand awareness battle — just look at these photos.

  • “Where would you draw the line between different types of advertising, and what about political campaign posters?!”

This is the easy part. We have two examples to draw upon already: Sao Paulo, where the city’s council already codified a working system for dealing with specifications, and Mar del Plata, with its much less extreme or rigorous system that proved implementation via collaboration could make dispute resolution a realistic process instead of a sad joke. So political posters would stay, subject to removal after they’ve become out-of-date. And that’s the best part: With new financing and explicit laws, there could be a teams of workers who’s job it is keep the city clean within a pre-defined framework approved by a democratic vote. Old political posters will now have a process for removal after their used-by-date.

So instead of having half-shredded, ugly out-of-date posters littering the walls, they’ll now be stripped down. Legitimate advertisers would move to an aboveboard system, so the city will now control the revenue rather than a ‘wild west’ system of back-door payments. All outdoor billboard would be banned, with the exception of ‘tourist’ areas — Corrientes theatre district, some of 9 de Julio and other designated areas. You know those new bus stops that keep popping up everywhere? What a great way to encourage more of these to be constructed! The city with its new monopoly can now negotiate better rates, and thus will have a strong financial incentive to invest heavily in badly needed infrastructure.

Furthermore, there’s already a recently codified system within the City of Buenos Aires: Ley 2965 has already divided advertising into districts, designated tourist zones and registered billboard companies into a database. The hard-work has already been done, now someone at the top just needs to roll-up their sleeves and try on a little political bravery. Which brings me to my next question…

  • “Macri isn’t exactly the most progressive guy, it’s laughable to think he’d even consider it.”

What are you, some kind of Kirchnerism-loving hippie? You think Mauricio Macri is just some evil, cartoon-villianish, Mr Burns-resembling mayor who’s only interest is funneling money from sick kids and puppies to big, foreign corporations? Could be, to be honest I really don’t know what motivates Macri – and it’s not something the media has helped me out on over the years. But let’s set aside our opinions on Macri and remember that his political doppelganger in Sao Paulo – who also had aspirations for higher office as mayor – concluded that this initiative would be a great tactics for making a credible shift to the left.

It might be a little Faustian but you have to be a deep cynic to think this is a bad thing. Here’s what I want more in Argentine politics: Compromises and more interest alignment between those at the top. This achieves both of those. What would an FPV candidate have to say if Macri proposed this? I have no idea, but you know what, I would love to find out. If Macri wants to be a factor in 2015, he should stop wasting his time with photo-ops and bullshit sessions with Moyano and instead think about taking on FPV’s political complacency on the left.

So it works from a political angle. But what about just plain-old ‘good for the city’ angle? And here you’ll find the meat of my proposal: This idea would be a powerful cornerstone for a new rejuvenation plan for Buenos Aires.

Recently, the City of Buenos Aires began a revamp of its image, bringing together tourist facilities, public transport, garbage collection and the shiny new bike lanes under a new central banner. It was much needed. Buenos Aires was (and still is) full of untapped potential. Some believed it was all for show; that Macri was focusing on the aesthetics while ignoring the important issues like public housing and social problems. Maybe so, but I’m more of a realist: Generating passion for tackling the big issues requires a marketer’s touch, and achieving sometimes needs an appeal to our superficiality.

In other words, what Buenos Aires needs is a grand gesture, a bold statement that says to the residents, bureaucrats and power-brokers, we are no longer going to be complacent and wait for things to happen. Macri has already started walking down this path: He cut down many beloved trees to expand Metrobus in a push for a more functional city. But that’s an idea from the right. What he needs now is a unifier, a great reach the other side of the isle, something that will provoke discussion and divide people not by left/right-wing ideological associations — but into optimists and cynics. Dreamers and haters.

And let’s face it, under the surface of this dirty, badly maintained, dysfunctional city is a hidden charm and beauty, sitting there waiting for someone to take out the shine box and give it a good polish. This ‘natural’ beauty of the artist formerly-known-as-the-Paris-of-South-America is unique, buried under the same trash that covers other Latin American cities. But those other cities don’t have what Buenos Aires has. We all know this: The beautiful old buildings, the graffiti culture, the beautiful wide road corridors, the grandeur that takes your breath in Western Europe is right there, begging to be shown off. But this isn’t something anyone should be begging more. It makes too much sense.