Advertising in
public spaces

Visual clutter is everywhere

On my last trip to northern Italy, I was struck by how little advertising there was in public spaces. This combined with the fact that in the cities I visited, signage in public spaces blended in much better making for a much more unobtrusive environment made me much more aware of the phenomenon again. Especially coming from Germany, where we seem to have a penchant for [[public-signage]]

Advertising in public spaces is a topic that goes back decades and comes back into focus every now and then. Sometimes more, sometimes less. In this text, I do not want to take sides for or against advertising per se, nor do I want to discuss the advertising itself, but I want to look at advertising in public space as a whole (as best I can). And though I recognise it’s necessity from an economic point of view I often dislike it from an aesthetic point of view.

There are two main types of advertising in public spaces.

On the one hand, there is shop advertising, in which signage and advertising is placed in shop windows, on the facades or on the pavements in the immediate vicinity of a business, indicating what kind of business it is and thus making this business recognisable to the outside world so that it can be found more easily, etc. The second type is classic billboard or banner advertising, which does not indicate businesses in the immediate vicinity, but rather products and services in a more global context. Most of the time this is what most of us understand as the classical, spatially independent advertising of brands or services. “Event advertising” has been added as a new form of the second type in recent years, where brands, service providers or associations use the setting of an event to present themselves either via a classic sponsorship or as a partner of the event. This segment of advertising has grown so much in recent years that some brands go so far as to organise their own events whose main purpose is this kind of brand advertising begging the question as to the unbiased authenticity of the event.

Public space in our cities is a highly competitive place. In the ever-tightening crush of cars and people, more and more brands are trying to present themselves on shrinking and increasingly expensive advertising space to capture precious seconds of the brief attention of passersby. What emerges is a visually noisy mix of different shapes and colours for the sake of gaining attention that often do not match each other, not to mention the environment in which they are placed.

We are lucky if advertisers limit themselves to the use of static images in the form of posters and banner ads, and don’t pester us with videos or audio ads that hardly leave a chance to ignore the ad.

Some streets and squares even have such a large number of different advertising media that they have become a symbol for this situation. The Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo or the Times Square in New York City come to mind here.

Blending in

On trips to different cities, however, it is noticeable from time to time that there is also a different level of advertising presence in public spaces or that these ads blend in much better with the surrounding cityscape, especially in the case of pubs/boutiques. For example: while in Germany the McDonald’s branches are almost identical, with a few exceptions (these are often in the south), in many other cities (Turin, Antwerp, Amsterdam, Salzburg, Milan, Valetta) they blend much better into the cityscape (at least externally).

Some cities (Salzburg, Turin) have also developed their own style of marking businesses. In Salzburg, shops, bars and hotels (from kebab stands to five-star hotels) are marked with golden signs that are very similar in style and blend in much more into the cityscape. In Turin, neon signs are used instead of the golden ones, but they neither flash nor turn night into day, as is often the case elsewhere.

Those approaches come with a different set of advantages and drawbacks. From a travelers perspective it is very nice when you can take in a city as a distinctive whole that is not littered with glowing and blinking signage so you can focus more on the architecture, the landscape and the heritage. But on the other hand this may be a drawback for the businesses themselves.

The point I would like to make about advertising in public spaces is that I am not interested in banning advertising in general, or for more conformity between the brands. But I would like to see a better inclusion of the local context that fosters a [[collective-identity-of-place]] which is getting rare these days.

Sure, it’s nice that when we travel to other cities and countries, we also find products there that we know from home. But when we reach the point where the same products and services are available in every place in every country and those places are very similar as well, then it no longer makes sense to travel at all.