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A Magazine for Sheffield

Should Sheffield ban all outdoor advertising?

The Council just approved a ban on outdoor billboards and panels that sell unhealthy and climate-busting products. It’s an admirable start – but has it gone far enough?

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Outdoor fast food advertising on Spital Hill, March 2024.

Rei Takver

After Sheffield Council approved new restrictions this week, bright flashing ads for products that are bad for our health and for the planet will soon disappear from Sheffield’s city-owned outdoor advertisement displays. The ban, which comes into effect in April, will apply to ads for junk food, sugary drinks, petrol cars, flights, alcohol, gambling and vaping. The move follows similar recent bans in Bristol and Norwich, though Sheffield is the first to ban high-carbon car and flight advertising.

While some welcome the restrictions, others are adamant that the city should go even further and make Sheffield entirely ad-free.

The decision comes in the aftermath of a new report from AdFree Cities that uncovered deep inequalities in outdoor advertising exposure across Sheffield. The five wards with the most outdoor advertising – City, Darnall, Burngreave, Hillsborough and Broomhill & Sharrow Vale – have 32 times as many ads as the five wards with the least advertising. The poorest 30% of Sheffield residents are exposed to seven times more outdoor advertising than the wealthiest 30%.

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AdFree Cities

“It seems like a bad joke,” said Zak Viney, a Sheffield resident and AdFree campaigner. “No one ever asked for a plague of advertising on our streets, promoting overconsumption in an age of economic inequality and climate breakdown.”

The new policy will apply to advertising locations owned by the Council, including 17 large panels and billboards and 129 smaller advertising panels managed for the city by the companies JCDecaux and ClearChannel. It will lead to an estimated 20-30% reduction of the Council’s revenue from outdoor ads – between £56,000 and £84,000 per year – which the Council appears willing to lose to align its advertising policy with its ethics.

Darnall Ward Councillor Zahira Naz said: “This is an ambitious policy. It’s going to take time. But it’s going in the right direction.”

The city hopes banning the ads will help address childhood obesity, excessive drinking, gambling addiction and recreational vaping (not including vaping to quit smoking), as well as reduce consumption of high-carbon products that make climate change worse.

“I hope Sheffield Council take this opportunity to creatively imagine a better city – a city where commercial gain takes a backseat to community values, where these spaces are repurposed for things like art, community events and wildlife,” Burngreave resident and AdFree campaigner Annie Feetham told Now Then.

Critics say the new plan does not go far enough. The new policy doesn’t cover banks that finance fossil fuel companies, such as Barclays or HSBC, or ads that perpetuate sexism or encourage body image issues. It does not apply to the regionally controlled adverts on bus stops or those on privately-owned property. It will also take time to see changes on the street because any company that already has a contract to place ads will be able to continue until their contract expiration date, potentially years into the future.

While Green Party Councillor Marieanne Elliot approves of the new ban overall, she told Now Then: “Annoyingly, advertising boards obstruct pavements and cycle lanes in Sheffield. The positioning of boards can cause light pollution. We need to deal with that.”

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Outdoor advertising at Park Square roundabout.

Rei Takver

Cllr Elliot also wants to see a pause on all new applications for digital billboards. “Unfortunately there was a missed opportunity by not including this in the new plan,” she said.

According to AdFree Cities, large digital billboard screens consume the energy equivalent of 11 homes. They’re distracting and disorientating for wildlife, and the bright light can upset sleep patterns and cause headaches and migraines.

These new restrictions raise a larger question – should Sheffield ban all outdoor ads?

We have very little choice over what kinds of outdoor advertising we see.

Outdoor ads reach 98% of the population, so almost everyone who goes outdoors is forced to encounter them. Some argue that this makes outdoor ads particularly unethical.

“It seems most egregious in its infringement of our liberty to opt-out,” wrote the authors of Think of Me as Evil?, a report on advertising ethics from the Public Interest Research Centre. “True freedom of choice, in the context of advertising, means having the choice of not being advertised to.”

JCDecaux, which operates Sheffield’s city-owned large billboards, tries to spin this pervasive lack of choice into a civic positive in its website’s sales pitch: “As a public medium, Out-of-Home [advertising] is at the heart of communities, occupying a trusted place in local daily life.”

In reality, research shows that rather than encouraging community or trust, exposure to outdoor advertising sways us towards materialism, isolates us and damages our health.

Dr Amy Isham, an Environmental Psychologist at Swansea University, told to Now Then: “Advertising encourages our children to pursue lifestyles focused on constantly having the latest stuff, believing that this is essential for their own happiness and status within communities. These strivings undermine human wellbeing and reduce connection to others.”

Experiments in banning all forms of outdoor advertising have had mixed results. In 2007, Sao Paolo became so overwhelmed by billboards that its mayor declared them “visual pollution” and outlawed them. Grenoble also banned outdoor ads in 2014. In both cases, however, ads have found ways to creep back in.

While the world waits for a truly ad-free city, artists and activists keep the dream alive.

Brandalism
Brandalism (Instagram)

“Imagine, if you will, another world,” reads the manifesto of Brandalism, an artist collective that hijacks outdoor ads by painting over or replacing them, “emptied of mad empires, manufactured fears, paranoid dreams, and marauded lands.”

Robbie Gillett, Director at AdFree Cities, puts it more simply: “It’s a Blade Runner world. What could we have instead? Let’s have some trees. Let’s have some park benches to sit on and talk to each other. Let’s remove that increasing pressure to buy and consume.”

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