Big Ben is not a billboard

Many brands have turned to our iconic parliament to gain publicity. Lee Bridges offers some advice.

The Houses of Parliament are recognised around the world as a symbol of the UK and a must-visit for tourists. As an iconic sight, it is perhaps unsurprising that parliament – and, in particular, Big Ben (the Elizabeth Tower) – has become the backdrop for guerrilla marketing projections. 

However, as a much-loved, Grade I-listed public building, it is important to protect parliament’s symbolic status. Having commercial messaging beamed on to it compromises this status, which is why there are planning laws requiring permissions before any projection is allowed.

Unauthorised projections break planning permission regulations. They also dilute the impact of a marketing technique that parliament reserves for moments of national significance. For example, the projection of falling poppies to mark the start of World War I was permitted on Remembrance Sunday and it had a profound effect on those who saw it at a time of national commemoration. There was also a large-scale projection to celebrate the London 2012 Olympic Games. These authorised instances are rare and rely on a judgment that the interference to the enjoyment of the buildings is offset by the significance of the event.

As technology becomes more readily available to marketers and advertisers, unauthorised projections have increased. However, as they increase, you must also realise that their impact decreases in equal measure. 

Since the late 90s, projecting images on to parliament has become an increasingly common way to gain publicity. Perhaps the most infamous example was in May 1999, when the promotions agency Cunning projected a 24-metre image of Gail Porter on to the side of the buildings to promote FHM. The projection took place at midnight, so was not actually seen by many people – only late-night commuters and tourists. But the next day, every UK tabloid ran the story; by the following day, the stunt had attracted broadsheet coverage. By the end of the week, it became a global news story. 

Though many recognised the projection as a jape, the reality is that it is not on. We want to remind people working in creative agencies, as well as marketing, PR and advertising professionals, that there is a process of consideration that is taken seriously. To legally project on to the Houses of Parliament, requestors need permission from both the speaker of the House of Commons and the planning department of Westminster City Council. 

We are not being killjoys or jobsworths. The Houses of Parliament, famed for their stunning Gothic architecture, are part of an Unesco World Heritage Site and need to be enjoyed as such. These buildings are not free billboards – proposals to project commercial campaigns that are not in the national interest will not be granted permission. The council can pursue incidents where a projection has been made without its permission.

Finally, you do not need guerrilla projections to get the attention of parliamentarians. The UK parliament is arguably one of the most open and engaging legislatures in the world – every week, businesses are hosted within the palace and there are a number of all-party groups dedicated to enterprise and industry. So leave the buildings for people to enjoy and engage with us in a more meaningful and effective way.

Lee Bridges is the director of external communications at the House of Commons


Recent authorised projections

  • Parliament has been commemorating World War I through projections on to the Elizabeth Tower on Remembrance Sunday. In 2014, falling poppies lit up the tower, marking 100 years since the outbreak of the First World War. In 2015, images of poppies were accompanied by the names of battles in which British and Commonwealth soldiers fought and died in 1915.
  • During the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in London in 2012, a light show depicted sporting heroes and their Olympian moments from 1908 to the present day.

Recent unauthorised projections

  • In February, PG Tips projected Monkey on to parliament to mark Lunar New Year, which is the Year of the Monkey.
  • A swastika was seen on the side of the buildings on Remembrance Sunday in 2015 – it was organised by the campaign network Awaaz to protest against a visit by India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi.
  • A "before and after" image of Geordie Shore’s Charlotte Crosby was used to promote her weight-loss DVD in January 2015.
  • In October 2012, the founders of BrewDog parodied the Gail Porter FHM stunt with an image of themselves naked.

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