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?

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