A city stripped of advertising. No Posters. No flyers. No ads on buses. No ads on trains. No Adshels, no 48-sheets, no nothing.
It sounds like an Adbusters editorial: an activist's dream. But in São Paulo, Brazil, the dream has become a reality.
In September last year, the city's populist right-wing mayor, Gilberto Kassab, passed the so-called Clean City laws. Fed up with the "visual pollution" caused by the city's 8,000 billboard sites, many of them erected illegally, Kassab proposed a law banning all outdoor advertising. The skyscraper-sized hoardings that lined the city's streets would be wiped away at a stroke. And it was not just billboards that attracted his wrath: all forms of outdoor advertising were to be prohibited, including ads on taxis, on buses—even shopfronts were to be restricted, their signs limited to 1.5 metres for every 10 metres of frontage. "It is hard in a city of 11 million people to find enough equipment and personnel to determine what is and isn't legal," reasoned Kassab, "so we have decided to go all the way."
The law was hailed by writer Roberto Pompeu de Toledo as "a rare victory of the public interest over private, of order over disorder, aesthetics over ugliness, of cleanliness over trash& For once, all that is accustomed to coming out on top in Brazil has lost."
Border, the Brazilian Association of Advertisers, was up in arms over the move. In a statement released on 2 October, the date on which law PL 379/06 was formally approved by the city council, Border called the new laws "unreal, ineffective and fascist". It pointed to the tens of thousands of small businesses that would have to bear the burden of altering their shopfronts under regulations "unknown in their virulence in any other city in the world". A prediction of US$133 million in lost advertising revenue for the city surfaced in the press, while the São Paulo outdoor media owners' association, Sepex, warned that 20,000 people would lose their jobs.
Others predicted that the city would look even worse with the ads removed, a bland concrete jungle replacing the chaos of the present. North Korea and communist Eastern Europe were cited as indicative of what was to come. "I think this city will become a sadder, duller place," Dalton Silvano, the only city councillor to vote against the laws and (not entirely coincidentally) an ad executive, was quoted as saying in the International Herald Tribune. "Advertising is both an art form and, when you're in your car, or alone on foot, a form of entertainment that helps relieve solitude and boredom," he claimed.
There was also much questioning of whether there weren't, in fact, far greater eyesores in the city—such as the thousands of homeless people, the poor condition of the roads and the notorious favelas: wouldn't Kassab's time be better spent removing these problems than persecuting taxi drivers and shop owners? Legal challenges followed while, in an almost comical scenario, advertising executives followed marches by the city's students and its bin men by driving their cars up and down in front of city hall in protest.
Nevertheless, the council pressed ahead. "What we are aiming for is a complete change of culture," its president Roberto Tripoli said. "Yes, 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."
Originally, the law was to be introduced last autumn with immediate effect but it was first delayed until December and then finally introduced in January 2007 with a 90-day compliance period, supposedly giving everyone time to take down any posters or signs that did not meet the new regulations or face a fine of up to US$4,500 per day. Throughout that period, the city's workmen were busy dismantling around 100 sites per day, occasionally supervised personally by Kassab, a man with an obvious eye for a photo opportunity.
In theory, 1 April was the first day of São Paulo's re-birth as a Clean City. So what does it feel like?
"I can't tell you what it's like to live in a city without ads yet," says Gustavo Piqueira, who runs the studio Rex Design in São Paulo, "because in a lot of places they still haven't been removed. In Brazil, every time that some new law comes in, everybody waits a little to see if it will really be applied and seriously controlled, or if it's just something to fill the newspapers for a week or two."
In a lot of places, Piqueira says, this has led to the removal of posters but not the structures on which they were displayed. "It's a kind of 'billboard cemetery'. I guess they're waiting to see if the law will really last. If the mayor keeps the law for a year or so, people will start to remove them and the city will, finally, start to look better."
Photographer and typographer Tony de Marco has been out documenting this strange hiatus in a sequence of images published on Flickr and used to illustrate this piece. The city, he says, is starting to feel more "serene".
Already the law has led to some strange discoveries. Because the site-ing of billboards was unregulated, many poor people readily accepted cash to have a poster site in their gardens or even in front of their homes. With their removal, a new city is emerging: "Last week, on my way to work, I 'discovered' a house," says Piqueira. "It had been covered by a big billboard for years so I never even knew what it looked like." The removal of the posters has "revealed an architecture that we must learn to be proud of, instead of hiding," says de Marco.
But there are downsides—Piqueira worries that much of the "vernacular" lettering and signage from small businesses—"an important part of the city's history and culture"—will be lost. The organisers of the São Paulo carnival have also expressed concerns about the long-term future of their event now that sponsors will not be allowed to advertise along the route. The city authorities for their part have made it clear that certain public information and cultural works will be exempted from the rules.
After a period of zero tolerance, Piqueira believes that advertising, albeit in a far more regulated form, will start to creep back into the city, either as a result of legal challenges, a change in administration, or compromises between media owners and the city. Already, the council has stated that it would like to see the introduction of approved street furniture such as bus stops, which may well carry ads. As these will no doubt be for the major brands that can afford such lucrative positions, a more sterile, bland visual environment may replace the vibrant, if chaotic streets of the past. Flyposters, hand-lettered signs and club flyers will remain banned while international ad campaigns for global brands on city-approved poster sites will return.
For de Marco, though, "the low quality of the letters and the images on those immense pieces of propaganda" were always a concern, as was "the misuse and occupation of public space. In the weeks before my birthday," he says, "my visual enemies begin to disappear like the happy end of a motion picture. To see my city clean was my best birthday present and my photos were the record of the feast."
Meanwhile, according to Augusto Moya, creative director of ad agency DDB Brasil, the ban is forcing agencies to be more inventive. "As a creative, I think that there is one good thing the ban has brought: we must now use more traditional outdoor media (like bus stops and all kinds of urban fittings) in a more creative way," he says. "People at all the agencies are thinking about how to develop outdoor media that do not interfere so much in the physical structure of the city."
Moya takes an enlightened view of the law. "As a citizen, I think that future generations will thank the current city administration for this ban," he says. "There's still a lot to be done in terms of pollution—air pollution, river pollution, street pollution and so on. São Paulo is still one of the most polluted cities in the world. But I believe this law is the first step for a better future."
And even if some Paulistanos remain unconvinced, there is at least one group who are certainly not complaining—the city's scrap dealers, who are set to make a killing from recovering all the old signs and structures.