Selling the city’s soul

What’s not to like about more advertising on council “assets”?  Plenty, argues Gavin Corbett

At the City Council’s Finance and Budget Committee this morning we agreed, in principle, to look at consolidating the way the City Council organises its advertising contracts across bus shelters, bill boards, sport facilities and toilets.

At the moment there are a whole series of arrangements in place, offering income or services in kind.  It is unlikely that these arrangements are the most efficient we could have, so from the perspective of getting more from the existing level of advertising, I was happy to agree the report.

But the Committee also made clear that we wanted a fuller policy outline before the new contracts kick in in 2014.  That is also right as we really do need to be careful about advertising “creep”.  I do not want to see our public spaces turned over to promotion of commercial products and I made a number of points that I would like any policy to take into account.

Firstly, that we are mindful of Edinburgh city centre’s world heritage status.  Councillors are always going on, quite rightly, about Royal Mile Tat shops and bargain stores on Princes Street.  We need to show a face that is more respectful of the jaw-droppingly beautiful setting which has been bequeathed to us.

Secondly, that there are some “assets” that are just not for advertising.  Am I the only person whose heart sinks when I see school railings draped with banners from Sainsbury or Tesco all because of some scheme  to promote loyalty shopping for parents?  I doubt it.  And our parks, needless to say, should be havens from advertising.

Thirdly, there is consistency of message.  How many Edinburgh Leisure outlets have vending machines or adverts for fizzy drinks and fast food and what is that all about?  Have a swim and enjoy a Big Mac. 

And, finally, it is about what we allow to be advertised on council property.  Some companies choose, under the alibi of “cutting-edge” or “irony” to portray women in a certain way.  They can do that elsewhere.  Others target low income or disadvantaged groups in ways that are close to predatory.  Again, we don’t want these. 

…. And although there might be entertainment value in supplying councillors with outfits emblazoned with the logos of sponsors – like professional cyclists and footballers – I am not sure we fit the market which sponsors might look for….      

To return to the real world, advertising is an enormous industry.  It exists mostly to persuade people to buy stuff they don’t really need and our fragile planet can ill-afford.  We may have to learn to live with it, and even smile at its undoubted ingenuity. But we don’t have to buy it wholesale.  

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