PAP 46 : The advertising billboard, a predator of the landscape

Image of the oil age

Alain Freytet, January 2021

Le Collectif Paysages de l’Après-Pétrole (PAP)

Concerned about ensuring the energy transition and, more generally, the transition of our societies towards sustainable development, 50 planning professionals have come together in an association to promote the central role that landscape approaches can play in spatial planning policies.

Alain Freytet, landscape illustrator and adviser to the Conservatoire du Littoral, is a teacher at the Landscape School of Versailles. He has travelled all over France, most often highlighting the inconsistencies and brutality of advertising or information displays in our environment. In this article, he warns about this problem and proposes a « landscape » approach to fight against « advertising intrusion ».

« No, the ugliness of the oil era is not inevitable » is the title of Sibylle Vincendon’s article on the publication of the book PAP 1. The billboard contributes to this ugliness. It imposes itself on the landscape. It is estimated that there are nearly a million advertising billboards along roads, sometimes paths and in public spaces, half of which are illegal.

The billboard aims at the instant effectiveness of simple, even simplistic slogans, messages of immediate need that will turn us into potential buyers. In the blink of an eye, it captures attention and marks memories, reducing our ability to concentrate, which has become increasingly shorter, especially in children. The billboard is all the more attractive because it carries a pseudo-gaiety, an illusion of joy and freedom of expression. The landscape a contrario is complex and multifaceted. In order to appreciate it and grasp its meaning and dynamics, it requires a prolonged « floating attention ». Unlike advertising, which maintains dispersion, landscape calls for duration. It offers a subject of attention and contemplation where sensitivity and cognition, near and far, cultural and natural, mingle. A landscape contains visual elements that stimulate our brain without our full awareness. This activity sharpens and soothes us. On the contrary, the billboard hides nothing. Its two-dimensional message is immediate and direct because it must be understood in a few seconds. Even on foot and in front of the most beautiful of landscapes, it is difficult to avoid our gaze being captured by the often attractive image and the effective slogan. The panel vampires attention. Our confiscated mind forgets what surrounds it. Sensitive perception and landscape emotion vanish. The presence of a billboard in a landscape superimposes the reading scale of a leaflet on it, and it imposes itself on the attention. The size of the letters and images is at odds with the landscape motifs. The accommodation necessary to return to the observation and contemplation of the landscape requires time and effort that is no longer made when one panel follows another.

The state of contemplation, once broken, is difficult to return to. In classified sites where advertising is forbidden, in countries where it is not present, we are taken by a feeling of lightness and freedom without understanding why: the presence of billboards in our everyday landscapes has come to be accepted as a necessary evil. The mind captured by this bludgeoning can protect itself from visual and cognitive aggression by refusing to pay attention to the billboards, by becoming insensitive and by inventing perceptive barriers to neutralise these messages that distract us from the places and sites in which we are moving. The billboard tears us away from the landscape. Altering a free contemplation, open to the territory and to those who inhabit it, it superimposes on it a pseudo-emergency enslaved to consumption. The disinterested dimension of the landscape is threatened. Like the irruption of a page of advertising in a film, the thread of the landscape journey is broken in favour of a message imposed on us.

The billboard boasts of elsewhere by making us glimpse goods that we do not possess. It creates a state of dissatisfaction and frustration that can lead to a feeling of unease and even aggressiveness. With its playful and relaxed exterior, advertising imposes this shimmering seduction in a world imbued with anxiety, threatened by fear and withdrawal. By enclosing in the « always more » and the every man for himself, it participates in the destruction of social bonds. The landscape, on the contrary, is an opportunity to settle down, to recharge one’s batteries, to meet each other. It is free and opens up a feeling of freedom. It is lived here and now, in an immediate perception of the senses and the encounters that take place. We need these moments to reconnect to the world and to ourselves. Like dreams during sleep, landscape perceptions help us to refocus, to balance ourselves. The post-confinement has been eloquent in this respect, showing the need for landscape after a period of forced confinement, especially if we walk around and in company. Landscape is often present in the advertising image and can become a motif. It is then reduced to a background with the status of a stooge.

The landscape, the real one, is not a dream image but a tangible reality to which the third dimension gives its depth. The landscape in the advertising visual does not display any racoleur panels. It is often devoid of any human intervention. 4 x 4s are, for example, represented in natural spaces devoid of any human traces, exploiting an object that they tend to sully with their presence by inciting destructive practices.

The urban landscape is not spared. The multiplication of giant signs contributes to the ugly appearance of the entrances to the city, which are made commonplace by commercial areas. In the city, gigantic advertising tarpaulins cover the buildings, masking their architectural and urban qualities. They are sometimes even permitted in certain protected sites. Public information and the interpretation of a place can be misused when certain local information panels carry, for example, an advertising billboard on their front. Public information is turned into a Trojan horse to bring advertising into the urban space.

The advertising system is constantly evolving and takes advantage of the slightest regulatory loophole to impose new forms of intrusion. Trucks or cars with advertising on them circulate with no other purpose than to show them. A new generation of vehicles carries digital panels on its sides. As they do not have advertising as an official purpose, they can drive and park on the most beautiful sites and impose their message. On the coast, we have recently seen boats exhibiting huge digital panels with a surface area of up to 32 m2. They go along the beaches more than 300m from the shore to respect the law. To broadcast their slogans, they sometimes use a beneficial function such as collecting floating rubbish. Advertising planes waste fuel to pollute the sky and the atmosphere. At the seaside, the noise of their engines and the indecency of their message destroy the contemplation of the sea. They remain more or less authorised. Illuminated and digital signs are even more intrusive because of their messages made of light and movement.

Inherited from our past as hunter-gatherers who preferentially detect the flight of prey or the movement of potential aggressors, our attention is captured by the movement of a being or an object in the visual field. Our attention is inevitably caught by these advertising video panels. We are now becoming aware that the time spent in front of the screens induces health problems and disturbs our attention span. Digital billboards displayed everywhere consume energy and are real predators of our mental equilibrium.

Advertising displays serve the oil model

The permanent promise delivered by the billboard obscures the reality of the present by projecting us into a dream future made up of « always more » objects, secreting the permanent dissatisfaction of missing this commercial paradise.

The search for sobriety called for by the ecological transition contradicts these injunctions to consume. Talents have been recruited to fuel this propaganda. Using all their art to conceive the most intrusive images and messages, advertising has been using the techniques of propaganda stemming from psychoanalysis since the 1930s. These techniques date back to Theodore Roosevelt’s campaign 2 on the eve of the First World War. At the beginning of the 1930s, they were developed by the Nazi party and ensured its seizure of power. The warrior vocabulary evokes targets to be reached, a commercial war, spaces and territories to be conquered. The advertising message is based on the repetition of sequences already seen, recognised and memorised. By taking advantage of a floating attention dedicated to the contemplation of the landscape, the objective is indeed to gain « available brain time », to use the words of Patrick Le Lay, CEO of TF1 in 2004, about advertising.

A large number of advertisements praise the qualities of objects designed and assembled in the distance: they have travelled thousands of kilometres to reach shop shelves. The multiplication of these objects was born with the mass consumption offer of the oil company. Cars, especially the big, energy-hungry cars, take up the lion’s share of the market. They are promoted as the very embodiment of power, freedom and happiness. The billboard harpoons us: such a new car model, such a food habit suddenly represents an urgent necessity, capable of offering us a happy and comfortable life. This often superfluous consumption contributes to the ecological crisis we are going through. Advertising makes it possible to sell products that are programmed to become obsolete.

Whether they are defective or simply out of fashion, they will soon have to be replaced by a new model. Exhibited on the façade by the advertising machine, the seduction of the panel takes us hostage and traps us. The advertising billboard is part of a more global arsenal. It promotes a social project based on market forces, privatisation and consumption. Advertising thinking is about selling and spending: a free landscape is the exact opposite. A small number of large companies make up the bulk of the advertising that invades us. The considerable budget spent there is the second largest budget worldwide, after that of armaments. In these times of emergency, when we are trying to finance the fight against climate change and to look constructively at the post-oil world, this inconceivable expenditure is shocking. It is deplorable that so much intelligence and creativity is being spent for mercantile purposes and to propose this often useless consumption which has ended up, for many people who have become sedentary, replacing all other possible uses of free time.

The objectives of advertising run counter to the sobriety, reuse and degrowth that are necessary to make our social uses more sustainable. The model of consumerist mass distribution contradicts the search for local production that the ecological transition calls for. Short circuits do without the advertising war machines to develop. They make do with signs that are often neat and specific. Human contact and word of mouth enable them to make themselves known and to find outlets. Small businesses and local traders suffer from disproportionate competition from the big brands capable of spending considerable sums on advertising campaigns. Fortunately, by law, all advertising is forbidden outside the urban area, except for pre-branding of local products.

The landscape approach to fight against advertising intrusion

By raising the awareness of all partners to reduce the number of existing signs or to block expansion projects, each principle of the landscape approach will contribute to moving in the direction of « happy subtractions » within the framework of a landscape project 3. Attention to the site and location demonstrates the harmful effect of billboards in the landscape. The expression of different points of view analyses the diversity of dynamics underlying a landscape and the way in which a billboard can make it unreadable. The multifunctionality sought in the projects is naturally opposed to advertising which has only one function: to sell. Consultation allows an exchange between businesses and shopkeepers who are victims of unfair competition due to non-compliance with regulations, with environmental protection associations, mobilised elected officials and many citizens committed to the landscape. The search for beauty and harmony neutralises the devastating effects of billboards in the landscape.

Some remarkable initiatives show that it is possible to take action. The « Napoleon Route » through the beautiful Alpine landscape is an exemplary example. On a section straddling several departments, the legality of each sign was studied and a large part of the signs and pre-signs were dismantled thanks to a network of state and local authority agents that operates with few resources. Elected representatives, experts and associations sit on the departmental commissions for nature, landscapes and sites (CDNPS).

Their interventions have made it possible to correct a certain number of illegal provisions and to ensure that billboard advertising and mass distribution companies comply with the provisions of the environmental code relating to outdoor advertising. The regulations exist, reinforced by the Grenelle Environment Round Table in 2007 - 2008 with the reduction in the size of billboards and the ban on pre-signage. It is often poorly enforced and a large number of signs currently installed remain illegal.

These actions are based in particular on the drafting of local regulations on advertising billboards and signs (RLP: local advertising regulations or RLPi: local inter-municipal advertising regulations). This work is carried out in small municipalities as well as in large conurbation communities or urban metropolises. This mobilisation by the project is carried out with the support of local and national media.

For its part, the poster lobby is lobbying to change the texts in the direction of greater permissiveness. In 2015-2016, the draft decree known as the « Macron law » attempted to go back on four provisions of the 1979 law on billboards codified in the environmental code. It proposed a real regression, allowing in particular the authorisation of signs sealed to the ground in certain towns of less than 10,000 inhabitants and the authorisation of giant video and light panels in stadiums with more than 15,000 spectators. A wave of indignation mobilised many citizens and public figures. A petition with 60,000 signatures and an unfavourable opinion in the national sites commission made it possible to partially avoid this draft decree.

At the project sites, landscapers and naturalists must remain vigilant so as not to be too eager to tell too many stories using the billboard techniques that they are otherwise fighting against. There is no need to clutter up these sites with multiple, scattered panels: the fewer panels you put up, the more you let the landscape offer itself freely to everyone’s sensitive perception. Information and interpretation can be concentrated in certain places or made available by other means, such as the internet.

The landscape does not need to be subtitled. The language of landscape is not that of the written word and the imposed image. This is why interpretation panels are rarely read, and when they are, their message is generally only retained up to 15% of the time.

Raising awareness must also involve the public contracting authority, which draws up the specifications. Some people with virtuous initiatives such as the creation of an eco-neighbourhood sometimes feel obliged to promote them through advertising, at the risk of spoiling their landscape. The example of classified sites and the Grands Sites de France is remarkable. Thanks to the constant vigilance of site inspectors and elected officials and agents of management structures, these protected sites resist the sometimes invasive installations of advertising pressure. By removing the billboards, they offer spaces recognised throughout the world for their beauty and contribute to a very important tourist economy, a significant part of the national budget.

Some associations are doing a remarkable job in opposing advertising. Created in 1992, the association RAP, « Résistance à l’Agression Publicitaire » (Resistance to Advertising Aggression), fights against advertising by exerting legitimate pressure in response. This is also the case of « Paysages de France » whose slogan is

« The landscape is your business. This association carries out punchy actions such as tarpaulin and panel covering, always carried out in the general interest and for the respect of the law. Other associations are inspired by Gandhi’s civil disobedience. In 2003, « Les barbouilleurs » (The Smearers) covered advertising billboards in the metro with paint. Some members were taken to court, which gave media visibility to their struggle. The « Casseurs de pub » advocate degrowth, notably in their magazine. The Citizens’ Climate Convention has made two proposals to limit the expansion of the advertising system in public spaces: a ban on digital billboards and more generally on advertising in these public spaces. It is to be hoped that it will be heard.

The advertising system is spreading its nets everywhere in newspapers, magazines and journals. On the internet, it catches and parasites the slightest of our initiatives to inform and communicate. The language of the media erodes our sensibilities and dilutes our thinking. Reactions against the advertising aggression deployed in the landscape remain weak in relation to its impact. Our society is developing the same relative apathy with regard to the erosion of biodiversity or climate change. Beyond a daily fight against billboards and all the other channels used by advertising, education about landscape and the environment is undoubtedly a response, especially among children: raising awareness of beauty, putting names to things, living beings, recognising our emotions, feeling their subtlety and fragility, understanding their shared history and subjectivity which make us part of a common aesthetic culture. This fight for harmony and beauty can be a spearhead for the actions to be taken for an ecological transition.

on the book Villes et territoires de l’après-pétrole, le paysage au coeur de la transition, Editions du Moniteur, 2020.

  • 2 Twenty-sixth president of the United States from 1901 to 1909.

  • 3 Alain Freytet, « Le temps des soustractions heureuses », in Villes et territoires de l’après-pétrole, le paysage au coeur de la transition, Editions du Moniteur, p.232-239.