In 2006, Gilberto Kassab, mayor of São Paulo, Brazil, passed the “Clean City Law.” Citing growing concerns about rampant pollution in his city, Kassab decided enough was enough. But this was no ordinary piece of pollution legislation. Rather than going after car emissions or litterbugs, Kassab went after the billboards. Yes, you read that right: Kassab wanted to crack down on “visual pollution.”
Saying that visual pollution was as burdensome as air and noise pollution, Kassab banned every billboard, poster, and bus ad in São Paulo with the Clean City Law. Even business signage had to go. Within months, city authorities had removed tens of thousands of ads both big and small—much to the dismay of business owners, who said the ban would surely ruin them.
Five years later, have all the businesses in São Paulo gone under? Hardly. In fact, most citizens and some advertising entities report being quite pleased with the now billboard-less city. A survey this year found that a 70 percent of residents say the Clean City Law has been “beneficial.” “São Paulo’s a very vertical city,” Vinicius Galvao, a journalist, said in an interview with NPR. “That makes it very frenetic. You couldn’t even realize the architecture of the old buildings, because they were just covered with billboards and logos and propaganda. And there was no criteria.”
Where businesses are concerned, it turns out some advertisers are actually thankful for the ban, as it’s forced them to reevaluate and improve. “Companies had to find their own ways to promote products and brands on the streets,” Lalai Luna, co-founder of ad agency Remix,told the Financial Times last year. “São Paulo started having a lot more guerilla marketing [unconventional strategies, such as public stunts and viral campaigns] and it gave a lot of power to online and social media campaigns as a new way to interact with people.”
Anna Freitag, the marketing manager for Hewlett-Packard Brazil, said her company had never considered how inefficient billboards and the like were until they were illegal. “A billboard is media on the road,” she told the FT. “In rational purchases it means less effectiveness… as people are involved in so many things that it makes it difficult to execute the call to action.”
If you’re thinking São Paulo’s ad ban isn’t replicable in your city because it’s some South American backwater, think again. São Paulo is the largest metropolis in the Southern Hemisphere, and, with about 12 million residents, the 7th-most-populous city in the world. Big cities don’t need to plaster ads everywhere to exist—though you’d never know it looking at Times Square—and even if they did, Kassab and his supporters haven’t banned all advertising. All they’ve asked is for companies to stop cramming commercials down people’s throats while simultaneously ruining their city’s beauty.
Estimates say some Americans now look at upwards of 4,000 ads per day. When is enough enough?