Sao Paulo: The Ad-Free City

The world's fourth-largest city rids itself of billboards


| August 16, 2007


The bustling metropolis of S?o Paulo has gone ad free, much to the delight of aesthetes hungry for urban landscapes unpolluted by corporate entreaties. According to the decidedly anti-corporate Adbusters, the city of 11 million has been stripped of roughly 15,000 billboards since a new law went into effect in April. 'The Clean City Law came from a necessity to combat pollution,' explains Gilberto Kassab, the city's conservative, populist mayor. 'We decided that we should start combating pollution with the most conspicuous sector -- visual pollution.'

Adbusters reports that more than 70 percent of residents approve of the seven-month-old measure. But not everyone is singing the ban's praises. Advertising firms are enraged, and detractors are arguing that the policy is discouraging foreign investment and hurting the local economy.

In a June cover story for the design industry magazine Creative Review (article not available online), Patrick Burgoyne quotes a press release from the Brazilian Association of Advertisers (also known as Border), which describes the law as 'unreal, ineffective, and' -- yes -- 'fascist.'

A common refrain among these naysayers is that the ban is economically destructive. Burgoyne cites local press reports that the economy stands to lose $133 million in advertising revenue. Sepex, a S?o Paulo outdoor-media association, claims that the ban would put 20,000 residents out of work. A less predictable complaint is that the ban may actually be making the city uglier. Burgoyne writes that skeptics worry that ridding the city of its colorful, loud ads will result in 'a bland concrete jungle replacing the chaos of the present.' Clear Channel Communications, the US radio giant that has fought similar initiatives in the United States, has launched a public campaign claiming that the law will erode the city's culture.

Still, some on both sides of the debate agree that the billboard ban could be a catalyst for a new city. One ad-maker tells Burgoyne that it's an opportunity for advertisers to reinvent themselves, while others find a new city emerging from a suffocating commercial quilt. Local photographer and typographer Tony de Marco credits the ban as giving the city a newfound sense of civic pride previously foreign to most residents. The ban, de Marco says, has 'revealed an architecture that we must learn to be proud of, instead of hiding.'

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