Oct 242007
Authors: Maria Myotte

Pollution, too often, is simplified as beginning and ending with the natural environment.

Our lovely U.S. government and its corporate sponsors are obsessed with product placement and excitedly exploit anything that can turn a profit.

We need to beef up a definition of pollution that encompasses much more than the excess fumes that escape a factory or a Hummer H2 SUV. Pollution has most definitely co-opted our visual space as well. It’s hard to imagine a day without advertisements. They are everywhere; officially part of US identity, history and culture.

But sometimes enough is enough.

Enter Sao Paulo: Brazil’s most industrious and glitzy city, the world’s fourth-largest metropolis.

Fed up with the excess of public advertising, Mayor Gilberto Kassab championed The Clean City Law, a policy that mitigates the foulness of the city’s visual space.

In an interview with Adbusters, Kassab said, “The Clean City Law came from a necessity to combat pollution … pollution of water, sound, air, and the visual. We decided that we should start combating pollution with the most conspicuous sector – visual pollution.”

For the most, the policy has been successful; surveys indicate that the measure is extremely popular with the city’s residents, with more than 70 percent approval.

Some were not as pleased.

Businesses and ad execs panicked. As reported in Business Week, Border (the

Brazilian Association of Advertisers) called “the new laws ‘unreal, ineffective and fascist.'”

Additionally, Business Week’s article reveals that the new law could put nearly 20,000 people out of work and cost the city $133 million in advertising revenue.

However the policy held its ground.

Roberto Tripoli, president of the council responsible for The Clean City Law said, “what we are aiming for is a complete change of culture. Some people are going to have to pay a price but things were out of hand and the population has made it clear that it wants this.”

So, storefront signage is severely limited, billboards, outdoor video screens and advertisements on taxis and buses have been deleted from the public sphere. Companies resisting compliance are subject to high financial penalties. Adbusters reported, “nearly $8 million in fines were issued to cleanse Sao Paulo of the blight on its landscape.

But, come on, it’s a capitalist’s world.

Sooner than later, government officials and ad executives will run longingly back, forgive each other and wonder how they ever managed without one another. And at this point, that seems totally possible.

The policy neglects the long-term relationships between business, advertising, and government. Money talks – the policy has already been unable to penalize and remove advertisements from companies that are rich enough to challenge its legality, amputating visibility from the poorest and most independent companies.

Vinicius Galvao, a reporter for Folha de Sao Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper, predicts that

the city will eventually allow some ads back in. “Not to revert to previous clutter, but I think like very specific zones, I think they’re going to isolate the electronic billboards in those areas, in the financial center. I don’t think they should put those in residential areas as we had before,” he said.

In the U.S., government plays wingman to corporate interests.

Communism aside, Sao Paulo is the first city in the world to implement a radical, near-comprehensive ban on outdoor advertising. The ban itself, even if flawed, is a hugely symbolic critique against the prevailing naturalization of consumerism.

The policy reinvigorates a distinction between government obligations and corporate interest; a distinction that has pretty much been buried alive in the U.S.

The great thing about public space is that it’s as much yours as its mine, but some people get to chop it up, sell it, trash it and use it against you.

We have become so habituated with the excess of advertising that we’ve forgotten and/or are unable to imagine a time before it. Perhaps a similar ban would fail anywhere in the U.S., but Sao Paulo enables a reexamination of our comfort with excess and advertising.

Reclaim what is publicly yours.

Maria Myotte is a junior political science major. Her column appears occasionally in the Collegian. Letters and feedback can be sent to letters@collegian.com.

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