Sao Paulo: The Advertising-Free City

Brazil, international, advertising, commons strategies

n July 2005, I blogged about a visionary artist who organized a two-week art installation project in Vienna called “ Delete!” that tried to show what the cityscape would look like without advertising. For two weeks in June 2005, shopkeepers let Christoph Steinbrener and Rainer Dempf put monochrome yellow fluorescent foil on all advertising signs, slogans, pictograms, company names and logos on Neubaugasse, a popular street for shopping. (Only signs needed for public safety were uncovered.)

Now it seems as though life has imitated art, but in a much bigger way. The City of Sao Paulo, Brazil, the largest, most prosperous city in South America, has gone ad-free! Last September, the City Council by a 45-1 margin approved a law that bans all outdoor advertising in the city of 11 million people. The law applies to outsized billboards, neon signs, electronic screens, ads on the sides of buses, the distribution of fliers, and even advertising banners pulled by airplanes and placed on the sides of blimps.

The goal of the law, which went into effect on January 1, 2007, was to eliminate the out-of-control commercialism in the city and bring about a huge change in the look and feel of public spaces.

As Brazilian journalist Robert Pompeu de Toledo wrote, the ad ban is “a rare victory of the public interest over private, of order over disorder, aesthetics over ugliness, of cleanliness over trash. For once in life, all that is accustomed to coming out on top in Brazil has lost.” On Flickr, Tony de Marco has post a set of photos of what an ad-free Sao Paulo looks like now: all sorts of empty billboards and empty light boxes. (For more, see Boing Boing’s post on the story here, and Larry Rohter’s article in the International Herald Tribune (December 12, 2006) can be read here.)

Some critics of the law --“ i.e., the advertising industry -- argue that it infringes upon free expression, will cost jobs, make consumers less informed, and make the streets less safe (because of the reduction in lighting. But considering that the city had an estimated 13,000 billboards, with more than half of them illegal -- it sounds as if things had gotten out of control. One can only imagine how the City Council passed this law with only one dissenting vote.

It will be interesting to see what sorts of non-commercial and artistic alternatives to giant signs for Coca-Cola and McDonald’s will materialize. But for now, the visual clutter and psychological assault of commercialism in Sao Paulo have abated. A fascinating, improbable experiment!

Originally published by David Bollier at Onthecommons.org under a Creative Commons Attribution license.