Saturday, June 4, 2011

The politics of outdoor media in 'branded cities'

Earlier this week,  a controversy erupted in the city of Brisbane when Adshel, the outdoor advertising company contracted by Brisbane City Council to provide its bus stops, removed a safe sex advertisement featuring two men cuddling ("Rip and Roll") from Brisbane bus stops. It said that it had done so in response to community complaints.

"Rip & Roll" advertisement ... offensive, right?!

After an outcry, and a small demonstration led by the organisation that had placed the ad (Queensland Association for Healthy Communities), the decision was reversed and the ads re-installed. Adshel CEO Steve McCarthy acknowledged that his company had been the target of a co-ordinated campaign by the Australian Christian Lobby for the ad's removal.

This is just the latest in a series of censorship controversies in Australia and elsewhere about the censorship of outdoor media. Advertisements by animal rights activists in favour of banning eggs from caged chooks, and by atheists in favour of doing something other than going to church on Sunday morning, have been banned from outdoor media by media companies in Australian cities in recent years. (I had an opinion piece published in the Sydney Morning Herald commenting on one of these episodes.)

I've been conducing research on the changing face of outdoor advertising in our cities for the last few years ... and have developed a fairly unhealthy interest in bus stops, billboards, news and fruit stands, garbage bins, flower stalls, bicycle racks and other bits of urban infrastructure as a result!

Increasingly, these bits of infrastructure are provided by private outdoor advertising companies contracted by state authorities. The companies agree to provide and maintain the infrastructure for 'free' in return for being allowed to sell advertising space. A relatively small number of multi-national outdoor media companies like Adshel (part of the global Clear Channel Outdoor group) and JC Decaux dominate the market worldwide. The companies and the (often cash-strapped) urban authorities say this is a 'win-win' arrangement, but I am not so sure...

In this particular episode in Brisbane, the last line of the Herald's article about the episode is the most revealing:
Brisbane City Council, which owns the bus stop panels, declined to comment on the removal of the advertisements, saying “the council had no involvement in this matter”.
In Brisbane as in many other cities, the power to determine the content of outdoor media is increasingly in private rather than public hands, even on publicly-owned urban infrastructure.

And possibly more importantly, these arrangements are also reducing access to the outdoor media landscape in many cities. These outdoor advertising companies are only profitable to the extent that they can monopolise the outdoor media landscape (it's harder to charge money for your advertising space if other people can get their message up for free somewhere else, or if the ads are vulnerable to hacking and defacement...). So, the private companies and their public sector partners are increasingly clamping down on other uses and users of the outdoor media landscape in order to ensure their arrangements remain profitable.

I think this is having harmful consequences for the use of outdoor media by the kinds of people who use the city as media because it's free -- including artists, activists, and musicians who can't afford (or just don't want) to pay commercial media rates to get their message across.

Of course, these are also the kinds of folks who are unlikely to let the advertising companies have things all their own way! We are certainly starting to see examples of folks push back against the commodification and monopolisation of their outdoor media spaces.

We are also starting to see some urban authorities wind back the amount of commercial outdoor advertising in their cities, and/or make sure that 'free' spaces are provided alongside commercial spaces.

If you think you might be interested in reading more on this... 
  • my submission to a recent Parliamentary Inquiry into outdoor advertising, with some recommendations for how these arrangements ought to be regulated, is here
  • an almost final draft of my article "Branded Cities" (appearing soon in Antipode, and focusing on the contested politics of outdoor media) is here. Thanks to my man Jordan at Public Ad Campaign for hosting this ... you should check Jordan's awesome campaign efforts on outdoor advertising while you are there!
Meanwhile, I leave you with a favourite find from this outdoor ad research ... yes, KFC are even fixing potholes in Louisville, Kentucky, in return for the right to stencil KFC advertisements on the road surface. Go Colonel!!!

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