Wednesday, July 27, 2011

"Reclaiming Public Space"? Australian Parliamentary Inquiry reports on Outdoor Advertising

A few weeks ago, I posted here about a controversy over the censorship of an outdoor advertising campaign for safe sex. At the end of that post, I mentioned that the Australian House of Representatives' Standing Committee on Social Policy and Legal Affairs was in the middle of an Inquiry into the regulation of outdoor advertising. The Inquiry was established in response to a series of controversies about outdoor advertising in Australian cities in recent years.

Well, that Committee has now finished its Inquiry, and has published its final report, called Reclaiming Public Space. You can see the report online here.

The Inquiry was overwhelmingly focused on the content of outdoor advertising. But of course, as with all forms of public address, questions of content cannot easily be separated from questions of form. Outdoor, by virtue of its location in the urban public realm, is a unique form of advertising. Precisely because of its form and location, advertisers can't really use the 'freedom of choice' arguments that they typically mobilise against any efforts to regulate advertising in other media more heavily. As outdoor media companies are usually the first to boast in pitching their media to advertisers, "it's the only medium you can't switch off". This means that they can't use the old "no-one's forcing you to look at it" rebuttal that is used with regard to advertising in magazines, newspapers, television and the like.

The importance of these questions of form is (sort of) reflected in the Committee Chair's foreword to the report. MP Graham Perrett says:
Community sentiment supported the Committee’s opinion that there is a need to reclaim public space from any wayward interests of commercial advertising. ... Public spaces are for the use of all members of the community—men, women and children—and the right to enjoy the amenity of a space should not be compromised by an advertiser’s array of inappropriate images. This report has listened to the Australian community and, on behalf of the Australian community, it says enough is enough. It is time to reclaim our public spaces.
Perrett's foreword also makes reference to the growing 'dominance' of advertising in public spaces, and the potentially harmful consequences of 'increasing, sustained and cumulative exposure' of 'inappropriate' imagery. So, how exactly do they suggest that we 'reclaim public space' from the advertisers?

Well, despite its provocative title, the Report does not fundamentally challenge the status quo. Instead, the report recommends that the current industry self-regulation of outdoor advertising by the industry remains in place, with some modifications. In summing up the Committee's findings, Perrett stated in a media release that:
We looked at many of the concerns about advertising self-regulation, but ultimately we agreed that there is scope for the system to be tightened up rather than completely replaced. However, we as a Committee feel very strongly that if the industry doesn’t shape up, then government regulation is definitely on the cards.
And so, it is to be left to the industry to continue to define for itself what counts as 'wayward' or 'inappropriate', in consultation with 'the community' and 'experts' of course. All 19 recommendations are basically about tweaking the current system of self-regulation.

I think a great opportunity has been missed here. In leaving on-going regulation of advertising content in the hands of the advertising industry, the Committee has completely ignored the changing form of outdoor advertising. A significant and growing proportion of outdoor advertising is actually installed on urban infrastructure that is either owned or contracted by state authorities. Advertising on 'street furniture' and 'transport' now accounts for over 40% of outdoor revenue -- and most of this is provided by outdoor media companies who have been contracted by state-owned utilities and local governments. Plenty of billboards, which account for another 40% of outdoor advertising, are also on government-owned property. In other words, government agencies are part-owners of much outdoor media.

So, if there are important issues associated with both the extent and content of outdoor advertising, government is already 'involved', as media owner and increasingly as advertiser.*  As such, it seems a bit lame for the Committee to let government(s) off the hook in playing a more direct role in shaping the content of outdoor advertising. By refusing this role, not only are we likely to see no reductions in sexist imagery and more examples of conservative censorship -- we will also continue to see bizarre situations like one in Auckland that was recently drawn to my attention, where bus shelters carried anti-bus ads by a car manufacturer telling commuters they should be more like the people driving past them while they are waiting for the bus. Way to encourage public transport!

Am I being too cynical to suggest that Australian governments might be loathe to play a stronger role in regulating the content of outdoor advertising too heavily because they are increasingly dependent on advertising revenue to fund basic urban infrastructure? And might this also be a reason they appear loathe to put the bigger questions of access on the political agenda, by taking steps to ensure more democratic forms of access to outdoor media that don't require vast sums of money? (The issue of access barely rates a mention in the report, despite this amazingly awesome submission on the subject they received from a brilliant local urban geographer...!!)

Anyways, at the very least this Inquiry put the issue on the public agenda ... and I guess now I can feel slightly less embarrassed about my outdoor advertising obsession (to anyone who disses my strange interest in bus stops, I can now reply that there was a Parliamentary Inquiry about this stuff!). And the submissions should make interesting reading for those interested in the policing and politics of outdoor media...

* According to the Outdoor Media Association of Australia, the Government of NSW is the highest spending outdoor advertiser, and the Governments of Victoria, Queensland and the Commonwealth all appear in the list of top 20 outdoor advertisers.


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