From time to time, someone will take offense at our activities on the grounds that advocating for protection of the visual environment from an onslaught of commercial advertising is a trivial cause compared to fighting poverty, or global warming, or gang warfare, or any number of other social and environmental ills. In other words, “Can’t you find something more important to be bothered about?”
Well, yes. We could join the quest to find cures for cancer, or to reduce the rate of infant mortality. We could go around cajoling smokers to quit smoking, and obese people to lose weight. Instead, we chose to stick our fingers in the porous dike that separates the public spaces of our city from a tidal wave constructed by those who want you to see commercial messages wherever you drive, walk, bicycle, sit, and otherwise experience the urban environment.
A trivial cause? Consider the ongoing implosion of our economic system, which in a very large measure was built upon the principle of consumption. Our jobs, our homes, our cars, our lifestyles dependent upon people shopping, which means reacting to those ubiquitous signs urging us to buy a hot new product or sign up for the latest service. We don’t need text explaining the wonders awaiting us, just an image to trigger a reflexive desire to consume, as though we were a collective Pavlov’s dog.
We don’t hate advertising. Retail businesses need to attract customers, so they can pay their employees and fund their owners’ retirement plans. We don’t even hate billboards, having experienced a tug of nostalgia while browsing the classic billboard images in the June issue of Los Angeles magazine. And we’re old enough to fondly recall the sight of Burma Shave signs scrolling past the windows of the family sedan as it rolled along a Midwestern highway.
But that was then, as the saying goes, and now is now. Entire buildings are turned into advertisements. Digital billboards with their dialed-up illumination dominate the night at busy intersections. How many times do we need to be told to buy an Ipod or sign up with Verizon or chow down on a McDonald’s hamburger? In some quaint past billboards urged passersby to eat at Myrtle’s Café, or spend the night at the Shady Rest Motel. Now they urge-no, demand-that you buy a ticket for the latest blockbuster movie, or tune in to the latest titillation offered by Fox TV. What we have is a voracious corporate appetite for “branding” that is ubiquitous-seen everywhere, all the time, impossible to evade or ignore.
We understand that some people feel this trend to a Blade Runner, Minority Report-esque future is perfectly okay. We understand that some serious commentators believe that raising alarms about this future is just the fustiness of people-likely to be white, affluent, middle-aged homeowners-who live in L.A. but want to believe they’re really in some small town with white picket fences, elm trees shading the lawns, and friendly mail carriers who stop to pet the dog and exchange observations about the kids and the weather. People likely to be frightened by the very things that make the urban environment vital and exciting-pulsating images projected onto the sides of buildings, dramatic light shows, vivid graphic expressions that may be intent upon selling you something, but so what?
Yes, so what? If you want to hang out in Times Square with the hordes of tourists amidst the oversized ads staring down from all directions, by all means do it. If you want to drive back and forth on the Sunset Strip gawking at the billboards, nobody is trying to stop you. If you want to spend your nights at L.A. Live gazing in wonderment at the multi-story Nokia and Coca-Cola ads, be our guest. You have your idea of pleasure, we have ours. The problem comes when your idea trumps ours and the experience you want becomes the universal experience, and because you happen to like bright digital billboards and huge supergraphic signs everyone has to see them whenever they venture any distance from their abodes.
Giving people the choice to see or not to see advertising might seem reasonable, even democratic, but it works against the principle at the heart of the outdoor advertising industry, which is that effective advertising is advertising that cannot be turned off, cannot be fast-forwarded, cannot be avoided by turning the page or getting up and walking out of the room. In a heavily fractured media environment a captive audience has great value, which is the reason that this recession has seen spending on outdoor advertising fall much less precipitously than spending on other media.
But just as the bucolic past of hand-painted billboards and Burma Shave signs has been displaced by digital billboards and supergraphic building wraps, the present will give way to something likely to be bigger, brighter, more insistent, more difficult to ignore. As the writer Evan S. Connell said in his brilliant historical disquisition, The White Lantern, “The ultimate question, though, toward which all inquiries bend, and which carries a hint of menace, is not where or when or why we came to be as we are, but how the future will unfold.”Dennis Hathaway