Have you ever imagined what Amsterdam would look like without any form of advertising on the streets? Maybe it has crossed my mind, but the scenario seemed to unrealistic to give any further thought. Not for Gilberto Kassab, a former mayor of São Paulo. Due to the exponential growth of advertising in the city and the difficulty to regulate it, Kassab decided in 2006 to ban advertising altogether. He introduced the “Clean City Law”, outlawing the use all outdoor advertisements, including billboards, transit and storefront signs. In a single year, 15.000 billboards and 300.000 oversized storefront signs were removed in the the city. Was São Paulo in 2006 the start of an era of ad-free cities? Or is it just naïve to think we can fully banish advertising?

Positive Vibes

For São Paulo, it has definitely led to some positive things. The hidden beauty of the urban city was revealed and the unique character was able to resurface. To help people identify and distinguish between businesses, buildings were painted in various colours making the public space vibrant and attractive again. Moreover, it freed up space for street artists to work on graffiti masterpieces. And above all, it forced them to be creative and agile, leading to a thriving advertising industry. They had to come up with alternative methods, like indoor innovations such as elevator ads, but the primary focus was on digital media. It has made São Paulo a front runner in the area of social media and digital marketing.  

No pain, No Gain

On the other hand, São Paulo had to deal with some negative consequences as well. The city went through something like an identity crisis, since the uncovered and ugly concrete jungle was making the city look worse without its advertising mask. The once hidden favelas were revealed showing gross inequalities and the city became less safe due to the loss of lighting. Furthermore, it had a large impact on the local economy, leading to revenue losses and the disappearance of jobs. Not to mention the limitation of the freedom of speech. Consumers have less information on which to base purchase decisions, damaging the rules of a market economy.

We may think that advertising is the devil bringing us nothing but misery, but there might be more to it. People have a basic need for relevant, entertaining and informative content. If it’s done in the right way, commerce can be a valuable exchange. If brands are part of the public space, it enters people’s thoughts and becomes the subject of conversations. And most of all, advertising helps to fund city infrastructure and is often a crucial source of revenue for many cities. Generally, it is not feasible to discard advertising.

Yay or nay?

All in all, an advertising ban has a big impact on the economy. It might look better, with less distraction and more focus on art, but it is a utopia? If it’s not on the streets, it will be somewhere else. Marketers will find other ways to influence you. And is restriction always the solution? Perhaps, it is possible to find a middle ground that takes all considerations into account. What would you like for Amsterdam?

Written by Jasmijn van Veggel