Billboard Bashing

Enormous, vinyl-mesh billboards -- sometimes covering whole sides of buildings and their windows -- are going up in urban areas all over the nation. A lot of people are grumbling about these "wallscapes," but a group of people organized by Carrie McLaren, an anti-ad activist, are trying to do something about them. On May 27, she and about 30 friends of Stay Free!, her zine about commercial culture, were in New York City's Times Square handing out fake tourist maps.

Leslie Savan: So what's on the maps?

Carrie McLaren: Ostensibly, they're maps of Manhattan, except that the only sites on them are the city's most egregious billboards and other outdoor ad creep. Stay Free! is also launching an online bulletin board that I hope will help people organize around billboard blight.

Savan: But why target billboards? Don't they make cities more fun? And despite the new technology that can hang them over almost anything, aren't billboards an almost old-fashioned form of advertising -- and rather innocuous when compared to wham-bam TV commercials or the Nike swoosh on a CBS sportscaster's jacket?

McLaren: Not when they're this big. They surround you. You can't turn them off or change the channel. It's the old captive-audience problem. These new billboards are sort of doing to adults what Channel One does to children. Plus, I think they're beginning to create a very weird atmosphere in parts of the city. Here's this 900-foot-wide head, and you're just this tiny little person. They can make you feel powerless.

Savan: So size does matter?

McLaren: Now, yes, because we're not used to seeing gigantic billboards. But people see new kinds of advertising the first time, and then they don't see it anymore. The same thing happened in the '30s with skywriting. New forms of advertising always have diminishing returns. Once you make something huge, everyone else will make it huge. You can feasibly get to the point where you literally block out the entire sky and no ad will be any better off. Even if you love advertising, to be a functional human being, you have to learn how to tune it out.

Savan: Do you think there's anything about vinyl billboards that makes people more likely to tune them out than, say, equally large billboards painted directly on to brick?

McLaren: Because vinyl ads can be changed in a matter of hours, I think they reinforce the idea that everything is temporary, plastic, and disposable. They make the street look like a website. Entire buildings are suddenly deleted. And that can make you more inured to your whole environment.

Savan: But the feeling I get from these ads is that they're urging me to celebrate: We're big! We're bustin' out! We're the manifestation of the blown-up stock market and the dot.coms! Join the bandwagon, or we'll crush you!

McLaren: Well, yes, some of the billboards seem to set up an us-versus-them thing. The people on the vinyl, it's like they're in a cult you don't belong to. They get to have sex and drink all the time.

Savan: There's also a sci-fi quality. They've descended and inhabited our cities, and are probing earthling coolness to sell it back to us.

McLaren: But for the people who actually live behind these ads, it's much worse. Some people have to look through the ad to see out their windows. It's like those "bus wraps" that cover an entire bus: when you look out, everything looks a little grayer and fuzzier. When people complain to their landlord, they can usually get the window portion of the ad cut out. But there are cases like the one on Houston Street in New York where the wall is actually owned by the gas station next door, so these people have no claims to their own windows.

Savan: Where are the authorities in all this?

McLaren: City regulators aren't doing much about excessive signage. For example, Reebok painted more than 200 signs on sidewalks in downtown Manhattan and was never fined. Whereas, if graffiti artists who weren't corporate-sponsored had done the same thing, they'd be fined or even jailed. And anyway, the New York police department is one of the biggest big-billboard users -- it has a 10-story-high recruitment ad at its headquarters.

Savan: But aren't ad-covered buildings just another inevitable step in the advertising arms race? Carrie, you really are a tiny person next to these huge ads. Isn't this effort rather quixotic?

McLaren: People think you're some sort of Gump if you try to fight this stuff. I hear that all that time. But to say that anything is inevitable is to disregard history. Four states have banned billboards, and Rhode Island has banned new billboards. Recently, Dallas has also banned all new billboards, and other cities have proposals or ballot measures seeking major restrictions. Anti-billboard efforts have been among the most effective assaults on advertising.

Lady Bird Johnson made this respectable a long time ago. One of the reasons I'm optimistic is that lots of rich people are on our side. In the past, wealthy people have banned billboards in their own neighborhoods, and let the ads proliferate in poor communities, because they thought those areas were ugly anyway. We're trying to make the argument broader than mere "beautification."

Savan: When we first met, you were defacing those ABC "TV is good" billboard signs at bus stops.

McLaren: That was about the specific message of the ads, not about the intrusiveness of the billboards themselves.

Savan: Well, if you flip ABC's line, you might have "Advertising is bad." Would you agree with that slogan?

McLaren: I'm really not against advertising per se. Like a lot of people, I grew up loving advertising. I had ads up on my wall. But in college, I remember reading about boy scouts selling ad space on their badges. It was really disturbing. That's how I got involved in all this.

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