Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Getting off the bus


'I highly recommend you get on the bus'. There’s something disturbing about the message on the bright yellow bus that travels up and down my street. It bears no relation to what's contained within.

The happy faces that decorate its exterior invite you into a magical mystery ride, but what you find on board is more like a prison. The merry image that wraps the bus is printed on a perforated mesh that tries to be opaque from the outside but transparent from within. The reality inside is otherwise. From the darkened spaces within, peering through the mesh, the world outside seems murky and distant.

We are finding ourselves increasingly victim to these incursions into our private space. Signage used to be limited to opaque surfaces, like billboards. Now, thanks to new printing technologies, it is possible to turn entire buses, trams and trucks into moving ads.

The advertising frontier continues to expand. Now animated screens promoting wares have become normal on the boundary hoarding of football grounds. Previously, the only moving elements on the ground were the balls and the players. Now the ground itself moves. The vertiginous effect makes the actual game well nigh unwatchable.

Advertising has always had its critics. In Australian Ugliness, Robin Boyd bemoaned the mess of signage that blights the 1960s suburban strip. But while perhaps ugly to look at, advertising was limited to what was out there— it didn’t affect our very ability to see the world outside.

Something wicked is happening to way we experience space. The bright lights of spectacle leave fewer shadows where intimacy can grow. In the early 1980s, the French sociologist Jean Baudrillard predicted advent of the simulacrum, an apocalyptic moment when the image would encompass the entire world and our sense of reality would implode. But even Baudrillard could not have imagined the way intimacy has since been externalised through Big Brother, Facebook and full body advertising.

According to a recent Ipsos Mackay Advertising report, consumers feel overwhelmed by advertising and are calling for restrictions. Even so, it is hard to imagine a retreat of advertising. The brightly coloured trams and buses give colour and distraction to our streets. Some might think that it is a good thing to have darkened interiors—it’s easier to read electronic devices.

But there’s another, more political reason to resist this slide. Turning vehicles into opaque boxes requires extra energy in terms of air-conditioning and lighting. Not only is there extra energy required, it also puts an increasing distance between us and the world outside. As long as we cruise along in temperate illuminated boxes we are less exposed to the effects of carbon emissions we are contributing to.

How many of us now live our day next to an open window? It’s this space between inside and outside that is being eroded—the cool breeze that wafts through the window, the knock on the door, the glimpse of passengers lost in thought.

There is hope. Melbourne's public transport system has new owners. The inevitable changeover will entail a radical transformation of its livery as new owners re-brand our trams, trains and buses. Can we imagine that there might be a chance to abandon body-wrap advertising? A ban on advertising! Inconceivable.

But its continuous growth must eventually reach a limit. On a recent trip to Santiago I noticed the entire side of a twenty-storey apartment block had been covered by one mammoth advertisement. For the residents of Santiago, the air outside is bad enough without having to live in a permanent shadow. Would that be the point when we might say, enough?

But on the other side of Latin America, one city has radically reversed the trend. In 2006, São Paulo adopted the 'Clean City Law' which prohibited all outdoor advertising. Suddenly, the biggest city in the southern hemisphere removed more than 8,000 billboard sites, stripped the buses and discovered the reality behind the glossy image.


The law against outdoor advertising was enacted by a conservative mayor in order to combat the rampant expansion of illegal hoardings. As you might imagine, the legislation was denounced by the advertising industry. Some raise the spectre of old communist East Berlin as an example of how drab life can be without advertising in the streets. But the ‘clean city’ has proved a hit with Paulistas. The city’s retailers have adopted alternative strategies, including colour-coding that add to the environment, rather than distract from it. The vacuum has been quickly filled by a vibrant new street art. The distinctive ‘straight tag’ calligraphy of pichação (dirty scrawl) has recently been recognised in an exhibition at the Cartier Foundation in Paris. As local design writer Adelia Borges says, ‘For São Paulo it is a wonderful thing. The city can speak!’

Could Melbourne do it? Perhaps the comparison with São Paulo is uncomfortable. We're a safe, liveable city. But perhaps if we had less life printed on our surface, we might find more life on the streets.

I highly recommend we step off this bus.

1 comment:

  1. Spot On!
    A well constructed post, I particularly like references to Latin America, where social change is still motivated be the people and not simply engineered by spin doctors and marketing whores.