Rodrigo Davies

Thoughts on Neighborly, civic crowdfunding and the future of community development

The case for an advertising-free London

15 Jun 2012


What would London be like if we banned all outdoor advertising?

Better looking and more peaceful, if Sao Paulo is anything to go by. The Brazilian city banned outdoor advertising in 2006, and the measure has enjoyed lasting popularity among residents (and populist politicians).

It's quite an easy sell to everyone except people whose businesses are heavily advertising-dependent and traditional marketing professionals. No gaudy billboards, no temptations to spend, and as the government's Tech City ambassador Ben Hammersley puts it, no signage telling us we're ugly, stupid and will be single forever (unless we buy product X).

Hammersley, also editor-at-large of Wired, drew the comparison with Sao Paulo last night in a talk for the Centre for London. As he pointed out, Paulistas have discovered not only that they enjoy the relative serenity of not having outdoor advertising, but they've also uncovered some rather beautiful buildings that were once hidden by giant signs. Imagine the dramatic facelift that Piccadilly Circus would get (here's what those buildings looked like in the 1890s).

Where does a ban on advertising leave marketers and companies? When Sao Paulo first implemented its ban, the naysayers predicted it would lose the city US$133 million and strangle economic growth. But the losses didn't materialise, and companies adapted. In recent years, even those at the heart of the advertising business have got on board with the idea. They say it challenges them to explore more innovative advertising methods, particularly at the point of sale, and online.

For businesses trying to get a foothold in the Brazilian market, the core strategy is now social media and interactive online marketing. It helps that Brazilians are avid social media users (the country has the world's second-highest number of users after the US), but then, so are Londoners (roughly 93% of the city is on Facebook, according to the site's own figures).

So that means more web advertising, more mobile advertising and London's digital marketing agencies can rejoice. Instead of an apocalyptic moment for advertising, could it be the moment that analog dollars become digital dollars instead of dimes? As more people start agitating for a ban, it would be very interesting to hear the perspective of the UK ad industry.

Meanwhile, I was at the CFL event on behalf of Spacehive - our founder Chris Gourlay was giving a presentation about the Cody Dock Project. More on that later.

P.S. Online advertising has overtaken print advertising in Brazil, and is now second only to television according to a report released last week (PDF, Portuguese).