A group of Geneva residents has launched a people’s initiative to ban commercial billboards from the city centre. While an important source of revenue for cities, the campaigners see outdoor advertising as little more than ‘visual pollution’.
Their campaign is inspired by events in January, when residents were given free rein to express themselves on 3,000 blank hoardings across the city. A dispute over the legal contract for the hoardings led to them being temporarily left white with no advertising. Locals seized the opportunity, let their creative juices flow and transformed the billboards into works of art (see examples below).
The experiment was a lightbulb moment for a group of Geneva citizens from four local associationsexternal link. Hoping to build on this spontaneous creativity, last month they filed a people’s initiative with the commune on the issue. They must now collect 4,000 signatures by November 7 to force a municipal vote.
The campaigners say they want to ‘liberate’ the cityscape of commercial advertising and at the same time provide residents with blank hoardings for ‘free civic and artistic expression’. Under the initiative, not all billboards will be kicked out of the city centre. Ads for cultural events and institutions will be permitted, alongside those for local businesses and shops.
“You can turn the TV or radio off, but you can’t close your eyes to commercial adverts,” Lucas Luisoni from the Réseau Objection de Croissance Genève association told swissinfo.ch. “Even if Geneva is more reasonable than other cities, big posters are imposed on you and you can’t avoid them."
Luisoni and his friends want citizens to reflect on how they can regain control over urban spaces and on the role of advertising in society.
“The urban billboards are mostly for multinationals, car companies, for example. There are very few ads for local businesses. If we want to defend the local economy, we must be coherent,” he said.
While a vote is still not certain, the initiative is likely to face stiff opposition from business circles.
“We are very worried by the initiative as it sends a very dangerous signal,” said Olivier Chabanel, in charge of advertising sales at the SGA agency, covering French-speaking Switzerland.
“This economic sector is very important for French-speaking Switzerland, employing numerous professions such as graphic artists and printers.”
Removing commercial billboards could cost the city between CHF3-6 million ($3-6 million) in lost revenue, according to different sources.
“Taking away this advertising money will just encourage people to advertise on Google and Facebook and the money will end up in the US. Is that what they want? Clearly, they have a very bad understanding of the economy and this initiative was just launched for personal reasons,” said Christian Vaglio-Giors, the chief executive officer of Neo Advertising SA, the agency now responsible for the city’s commercial adverts.
But the campaigners say Geneva’s billboard budget only represents a tiny percentage of the commune’s total annual budget of CHF1 billion, and can be compensated elsewhere.
Beyond the finances, Vaglio-Giors believes the initiative is misleading. He argues that it will not meet its stated goals of a commercial ad-free city centre.
“We’re only talking about 470 public commercial posters out of a total of 3,700. You then also have private posters, those on public transport, in train stations and on trains which won’t be affected by this initiative,” he declared.
The city authorities have yet to present their official position. This should be clarified if the campaigners hand in a sufficient number of signatures. Afterwards, the authorities must decide whether to implement the initiative, or to reject it or suggest a counter-proposal in a communal vote.
Former Geneva mayor, Rémy Pagani, who is now the official overseeing the city’s billboards, welcomed the outburst of civic expression in January. But he is against removing commercial ads from the city streets.
“Compared to French and Spanish cities, for example, Geneva doesn’t seem to me to be overrun by billboards,” he told the Le Courrier newspaper.
Vaglio-Giors says Geneva had made a huge effort to reduce the number of billboard sites. He said the city now had 2.3 commercial posters per 1,000 residents, compared to 5.1 per 1,000 for Basel, 5.2 per 1,000 for Lausanne, and 3.6 per 1,000 for Zurich.
And they have been properly adapted, modernised and are regularly controlled, he added: “In Geneva, we’ve imposed lots of limits. There is no advertising for alcohol or tobacco, no posters near schools or things like credit and loans or sexual messages. We’ve done a lot of work to have a qualitative, pertinent advertising format which is not dense.”
The Geneva campaign joins a global movement which has grown over the past decade to un-brand cities and try to rid them of adverts.
Several US states including Vermont, Maine, Hawaii, and Alaska are billboard-free. In 2009, Chennai in India banned new billboards. Paris has presented plans to reduce the number of ad hoardings by a third. And in 2015, Tehran replaced all its 1,500 advertising billboards with art for ten days.
In 2014, Grenoble became the first European city to ban commercial street advertising. The mayor’s office said it was “freeing public space in Grenoble from advertising to develop areas for public expression” and replaced 326 advertising signs with community noticeboards and trees. However, advertising remains on the city’s bus and tram stops until a contract runs out in 2019.
Brazil’s Sao Paolo went even further. In 2007, the centre-right mayor, Gilberto Kassab, implemented the ‘Clean City Law’, which made outdoor advertising illegal. Over the space of 12 months, the city took down 15,000 billboards and 300,000 oversized storefront signs. But in 2012 the authorities did a U-turn and signed a contract with JCDecaux, the world leader for billboard displays, to begin gradually reintroducing advertising in a controlled manner.