Thursday, February 18, 2010

Designing out advertising

Writing in The Guardian earlier this week, Jackie Ashley called for a ban on advertising on such as public amenities as bus stops, payphones, taxis and so on. The main thrust of the article was that excessive advertising is the root cause of the unsustainable consumerism that drives British society, not because we are all driven, brainwashed, directly to the tills by every bit of advertising we see, but because it creates a sense of dissatisfaction with what we have, and a desire to seek happiness through material possessions. What really caught my eye though, was the above call for an end to advertising on public places.

"How much prettier and more restful the urban landscape would be" she writes. Clearly, this is a lady who has not been without her mobile phone for a long time. Such a fate befell me yesterday, and I had to use a payphone. As I approached the bright silver kiosk tucked away by the Tube barriers, her musings came back to me. There is a touch of rather un-Guardianesque nostalgia about them - echoes of Boris Johnson harking back to the days of red telephone boxes, routemaster buses and the like. But the fact is that most of today's amenities seem designed with advertising in mind. Certainly if all advertising was removed, my local bus stop would not be a more attractive or interesting place. The same can be said of stations, payphones and even libraries.

Of course the major flaw in her argument (and one that she studiously avoids) is the financial implication. The hand-wringing over the decline in children's programme-making is directly linked to the ban on advertising to kids cutting off the funding. Similarly, if train companies weren't allowed to advertise on their services, ticket prices would probably be considerably higher. The Guardian, the newspaper for which Jackie Ashley writes, would probably cost upwards of a fiver. You have to get money into public services somehow, and given the state of the nation's finances, cutting off advertising revenue does not seem like a prudent course of action.

Notwithstanding such pragmatism, it would be nice to see some iconic design adorning such public places, heirs to the likes of the bright red phone box. That advertising is the route of consumerism is an over-statement - the media, celebrity culture and the banks are complicit in the same circle. But it would be a shame if every area of life submitted to it. However, stripping away the advertising from today's urban spaces would reveal a joyless cityscape im which function has overcome form. We may not be able to change the world at a stroke, but why not start with the bus stop?

Ideas on a postcard please - or failing that, the back of a bus timetable.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting.

    Once upon a time London Taxis were all black, or if they had advertising on them they were ad that were relevant. One was covered in the financial times, another was half black cab and half yellow taxi promoting flights from London to NY. All london buses used to be red, but ads like the Pentagram Pirelli ad where it looked like people on the bus were wearing slippers actually made it better.

    There is nothing wrong with advertising, if only it was relevant and made us smile every now and again.

    Black cabs, red busses etc are a major part of London and it's identity. Perhaps we should have some london Brand Tsar to say what is acceptable and what isn't. Do we need someone to draw the line?