MEDIA FORUM: Can the Govt successfully take on the flyposters?

The Government is looking to tackle flyposting. Shouldn't it take on something a bit easier, such as ending war and famine, Alasdair Reid asks?

When you see the words "advertising" and "antisocial behaviour" rubbing up against each other in the same sentence, all sorts of exciting things spring naturally to mind. The routine catalogue of misdemeanors that any awards ceremony worth its salt will throw up, for instance. Or, if you're more politically minded, the sorts of things that might infuriate anti-globalisation protestors.

But in this particular case, the punchline is rather disappointing. It involves, er, flyposting. The Government, it emerges, is rather concerned about the aesthetic quality of inner-city street life - and it has decided it's going to do something about it. There's going to be a crackdown.

Or rather, a tidy up. And there are likely to be some bizarre proposals floating around.

For instance, as well as rounding up the usual suspects - beggars, buskers, drunks - it's going to get people to scrape the impacted chewing gum off the streets. In some postcodes, chewing gum could even become a controlled substance. It's also going to get fast food operations to tidy up their acts and, last but not least, it's going to take a tilt at the diabolical social nuisance that is flyposting. In particular, it's looking at devising a system of penalties that really bite.

Campaign has looked at flyposting many times in recent years (the last trigger point was when Mother controversially won a D&AD award for its Britart.com flyposting campaign) and the thing that always shines through is the huge amount of hypocrisy there is in the advertising business about this issue. You'll find creative directors who, in one breath, will be telling you how they know it's stupid and wrong, and with the next will be briefing one of their creative teams to come up with one of these new fangled ambient, edgy, out-there-on-the-streets-type-campaigns.

And they're usually scared to put their own names to the work, preferring to get the client to use their PR people to place it. The client remains safe in the knowledge that no-one has ever been successfully prosecuted for flyposting in the UK. But the rules are about to change. Aren't they?

Alan James, the chief executive of the Outdoor Advertising Association, is dead against flyposting. But even he admits that Government thinking could be seriously flawed. "One idea is to force on all businesses and local authorities a legal responsibility to remove flyposting and graffiti.

To date, we do not know if this would extend to our members' poster panels and street furniture. Whatever the outcome, surely this is a ludicrous solution. Why on earth should the victim be made to pay for the offence?

The flyposting companies must be having a good laugh at this proposal.

It is a mandate for them to act even more outrageously. Our members are committed to maintaining and keeping their property clean as it is in their interest to do so, but to make it a legal responsibility is going too far," he argues.

Stevie Spring, the chief executive of Clear Channel, gave a speech at the Urban Summit at which the deputy prime minister, John Prescott, first floated the notion of a crackdown. "Advertisers pay for flyposting because it's all about guerilla marketing and being edgy," she recognises. "The only way for things to change really is for clients to recognise that it's not in their interests to flypost. Flyposting is run by companies that most clients, if they thought about it, don't really want to be involved with. And you find ridiculous situations where, say, a record company will be paying people to flypost everywhere - including over their own legitimate sites."

Many observers argue that the industry receives poor guidance on this issue from official bodies such as the IPA and ISBA. For instance, when Mother won its gold Pencil for Britart. "The IPA was toothless over that," Spring says. "Mother should have been chucked out."

Bob Wootton, ISBA's director of media and advertising services, confesses he's somewhat torn on this one - in fact, he has a personal view and an official view. The official view is that flyposting is illegal and ISBA issues guidelines to its members to that effect. However, it has no powers of sanction over its members if they should choose to ignore these guidelines.

Wootton was at a recent meeting called by Westminster Council in which it warned that it was going to take a tougher line on flyposting. This development was also conveyed to ISBA members.

On the other hand, Wootton's personal view is that, in some areas of some cities, flyposting amounts almost to a civic amenity. "Nothing is as black and white as is being made out," he states. "Flyposting is not universally hideous. To my mind, it's a social issue not an advertising issue. Government legislation is misguided. There are more important places where resource could be deployed."

Both the IPA and ISBA will be receiving invitations to spend some time in the company of Prescott in the coming weeks and months. It remains to be seen what good this will serve. Flyposting, some claim, is a fundamental reality of urban life. Always has been, always will be. On the other hand, Prescott may well wish to consider undertaking a fact-finding mission to Brazil, where earlier this year the local authorities in Sao Paulo successfully prosecuted Nike to the tune of £65,000 for flyposting.

Jeremy Craigen, the joint creative director of BMP DDB, the agency that some believe had a hand in the flyposting campaign for the Volkswagen Lupo (officially, MediaCom was responsible), says he has sympathies with Prescott's views. "A plain wall looks nicer than a wall with posters put on badly - and they're usually put on badly because you've got to do it before the police come. But the thing is, it's a powerful medium. Of course, there are less antisocial ways of putting up advertising but I don't think you have a hope in hell of stopping it unless you go out and prosecute people."

So, Brazil here we come. Brazil as in the Terry Gilliam film, that is.

That's no joke, Maryanne Macnamara, the new-business director of the flyposting "contractor" Diabolical Liberties, argues. She says the whole notion is ridiculous: "There's a lot of genuinely antisocial behaviour they could be worried about. Maybe they should look at drug-related crime before they try to tackle chewing gum. And where flyposting is concerned, this is actually seen by a lot of people as a valid means of providing information and it is recognised that it actually adds to the fabric of cities around the world. It would surely be better for the Government to consult and work with the people involved in this advertising medium. They should address the question of how people are to get information. The truth is flyposting is seen as a positive thing, especially by young people."

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