Neal Lawson of ‘The Guardian’ is wrong: Why we shouldn’t ban outdoor advertising

On Facebook, a friend of mine posted a link to an article in the UK’s The Guardian newspaper. The article was written by Neal Lawson and it’s entitled “Ban Outdoor Advertising“.

As someone who lives and breathes marketing and advertising, I think Lawson’s article is frustratingly naive (with all due respect to a fellow writer, of course!)

I’ve dashed off some thoughts below and I’d love to know what you think of the topic:

WHY NEAL LAWSON IS WRONG

I think banning outdoor advertising is naive because it only removes display ads. Our world is still awash in store-front signs and brands. Lawson wouldn’t suggest that we take down all store signs or pull the brand badges off of our cars or our clothes. So he’s focusing in on just one tiny element of a much larger issue — will this one fix change everything? I doubt it.

In the 1st and 2nd paragraph of his article, Lawson describes some of the public places where outdoor advertising can be seen. Although he doesn’t describe why it’s in those places, he says it shouldn’t be there. But it’s not like the advertising has suddenly appeared there against someone’s will. Schools and hospitals (and other public institutions) need to defray increasingly higher expenses and they have a choice: Charge users more (per-use, in taxes, or through some other form of income — advertising). So if we take down advertising in these public places, there will be a financial impact on users. Admittedly, not every public advertisement is there to defray expenses. (Roadside billboards, for example, are profit centers for the billboard owners rather than to help lower costs of a public institution).

In the 3rd paragraph of his article, Lawson says that the purpose of advertising is to make us unhappy. I think that’s somewhat alarmist. It also feels like he’s suggesting that we wouldn’t have these social problems of anxiety, insecurity, and obesity if it weren’t for advertising. That’s not true. We would still have these social problems because we compare ourselves with other people. For example, long before we had billboards, people were doing dangerous things to beautify themselves. And how does advertising help to sow the seeds of mental illness?

In the 4th paragraph of his article, Lawson say: “The advertising industry exists to ensure it becomes culturally and emotionally impossible to refuse.” I find that phrase the most offensive and naive statement of his entire article. The advertising industry doesn’t exist for that purpose. Industries (in general) exist to earn a profit by filling needs (both good and bad, admittedly), and the advertising industry exists to connect those other industries with potential buyers.

In the 5th paragraph of his article, Lawson says that advertising would clear our minds “for ideas, plans, love or just to daydream.” I’m not sure what he thinks is happening in our minds. In spite of our minds being all cluttered up from public advertising through the ages, we still circumnavigated the globe, cured many diseases, and went to the moon. (Maybe he thinks we could have been to Mars if it wasn’t for that pesky billboard that I drive past on my way to the grocery store).

Throughout his article, Lawson tries to separate the motivations of advertising from its value (I hope I worded that in a way that makes sense). What I mean is: He seems to be suggesting that advertising is there because advertisers are profit-driven and looking for more ways to tear us away from our money; instead, he should be considering that advertising is there because it works. People are going to buy things and advertisers are filling a need.

In the 6th paragraph of his article, after vilifying advertisers in general, Lawson tries to show us how great one city is doing it by quoting what is essentially a branded advertisement: “Bristol: the city that said no to advertising”. Somewhat ironic, in my opinion. But maybe Lawson is okay with it as long as that slogan is never ever displayed in public.

In the 7th paragraph of his article, Lawson seems to separate citizenship and consumerism. But those shouldn’t be separate. (1) Citizenship is a type of consumerism — we buy our citizenship with our taxes and votes; (2) Consumerism is a type of citizenship — we invest in who we want to be; (3) Advertising isn’t inherently uncultural — yes, there are disruptive and even offensive ads but advertising in general is part of our social fabric. Lawson seems to suggest that our citizenship would be better when outdoor advertising vanishes. However, I think that our effectiveness as consumers doesn’t come from NOT seeing ads, but rather from choosing to buy or not to buy what we see. We vote with our wallets. Those ads would disappear if they didn’t work.

So, what do you think? Will our lives be better if we tear down the advertising in public spaces?

Aaron Hoos

Aaron Hoos is a writer, strategist, and investor who builds and optimizes profitable sales funnels. He is the author of The Sales Funnel Bible and he's a real estate investor and a copywriter for real estate investors.

4 thoughts on “Neal Lawson of ‘The Guardian’ is wrong: Why we shouldn’t ban outdoor advertising

  1. As the instigator in some small way for this blog post I feel it incumbent upon me to respond.
    I have to say if all billboards disappeared from life I wouldn’t miss them in the least. If all public advertising of all kinds disappeared I’m unlikely to mourn their absence. I’m one of those people that uses ad-blocking addons in his browser. That being said there may be a loss to certain entities that rely on the money from this kind of advertising. However, it’s not like the money would just disappear it would be re-purposed elsewhere. Would those businesses that use advertising fail? I doubt it but maybe some would. I remember one of my economics profs presenting the concept that much advertising is a total waste of money (sadly I don’t have the slide deck or whatever he used to present it – it’s merely a memory now).

    1. Reade,

      Thanks for instigating the article, Reade, and for your comment.

      Like you, I use ad-blocking apps and I fast-forward through commercials. But I also think that if we ban display advertising in one form, it will appear in another. We advertisers are relentless that way. :)

  2. While I love outdoor as an advertising channel it has to be noted that it appears on our streets as the result of a transaction between the property owner and the advertisers representatives. The public interest is not represented in the transaction.

    The Guardian is written in a culture which expects public policy to more closely align with the public interest and expects regulation to more strongly represent the public interest in allowing or not, outdoor advertising.

    As advertising is only rarely in the public interest the obvious conclusion is that it should not generally be permitted. There is no driving need to have everybody incur the mental penalty of the distraction and aesthetic nuisance it causes.

    1. Owen, Thank you for the very thought-provoking comment! I’m curious: How would you describe an advertisement that IS in the public interest? How would it differ from advertising that is currently in use? (i.e., would your preferred outdoor advertising be more aesthetic and less distracting? How so?) I’m struggling with that “public interest” definition a bit. Isn’t it also in the public interest to tell the public about the services you offer? A business that creates happy customers, generates profit for stakeholders, and generates tax revenue — and derived that business through persistent, effective outdoor advertising — seems to be serving the public interest with outdoor advertising.

      I’m not trying to turn every intersection into the garish and blinding Times Square. I just don’t think we can regulate outdoor advertising out of existence.

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