Letter from America

A drive through an ad-free US is a reminder that adland has a duty to police its own commercial creep

Letter from America: A drive through ad-free states

So I’m driving through America trying to emulate Don Draper, but there’s something wrong. I’m on America’s Eastern seaboard for a start, whereas Don drove West when he walked out of McCann. I’m sticking to the 25mph speed limit in suburban Maine rather than going pedal to metal on the Utah salt flats like Don did. But the wrongest thing is this: there are no billboards. None. And you know what? It feels good.

Maine banned the world’s oldest advertising medium almost 40 years ago and today shares billboard-free billing with Vermont, Alaska and Hawaii – beautiful states all, I’m told. According to commentators, business-folk in each understand that "an unmarred landscape promotes tourism and benefits them in the long run", and that the ban serves also to "level the playing field between local businesses and national chains in at least one advertising medium". (Except the ones that have taken to flying light aircraft trailing banners along the coast, that is.)

These claims for a less advertising-sodden environment have an undeniable ring of truth about them but speak to impulses and agendas rarely voiced – let alone acted upon – in our industry. Indeed, the creep of advertising into more and more of our private and public spaces has gone largely unchecked over the years, even as it has spilled over beyond formal media spaces in the quest for proximity, value, cut-through or publicity (sponsored roundabouts, anyone?).

Our audiences have actually been remarkably tolerant of this rise in commercial clutter, perhaps because until recently it has been the public realm rather than the private domain that has been most relentlessly monetised. Anecdotally, at least, it is the increasingly personalised and invasive campaigns in digital and social rather than "analogue" media that have caused most concern about our industry footprint. Hence the rise and rise of the ad blocker, as predicted by Bill Gates in The Road Ahead almost 20 years ago.

But look far enough afield and you will find a quiet revolution in that most ancient and public of advertising fields – outdoor – beyond those four contrary US states. 

São Paulo’s mayor outlawed all posters in the city in 2007 under his "clean city law" on the basis that their haphazard regulation had resulted in "visual pollution". Paris set out to reduce its poster count by a third in 2011. More recently, Tehran gave over its 1,500 poster sites for ten days to works of art, inspired perhaps by the Art Everywhere campaign co-authored by 101, the Innocent co-founder Richard Reed, Posterscope and others during the summers of 2013 and 2014.

I brook no argument with the outdoor industry (indeed, it has often and quite astutely folded some kind of civic good into its evolving formats). I use it instead as a poster boy – literally – for the kind of conversations that happen too rarely in our corridors about the sort of commercial culture we are building for our clients and our audiences: in this example, the difference between the tree-lined streets of Maine and its ad-pocked TV screens. In short, what kind of advertising market do we want all our disparate efforts to amount to and then swim in?

The apocryphal foundation stone of the Hippocratic oath – "First, do no harm" – would, I have always felt, make a terrific starting point for the advertising industry’s own binding set of principles, should we ever be minded or organised enough to develop such a thing. All those sudden, dizzying changes of direction for a brand? Gone. The occasional campaign that brings our industry into disrepute? Strangled at birth. The annexation of a previously unspoilt civic space as a "media space"? Arrested or, at least, more carefully negotiated.

My poster-free vacation served to remind me of both a general and a specific truth about our industry: that responsibly wielding our power as advertisers prolongs our licence to operate, innoculating us against lopsided criticism from beyond. Policing commercial creep is part of our ongoing contract with society because it is in everyone’s interests that advertising is welcomed or, at least, tolerated by its audiences. 

And here, as in other advertising affairs, less may actually be more. There are no ad blockers for sponsored roundabouts after all.

Laurence Green is a founding partner of 101