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Let's call a truce on billboards

James Page

7th January, 2009

Knowing something of the energy consumed by flat screen displays I couldn't help noticing the appearance of an enormous (6 x 3 metres) digital advertising hoarding outside Richmond Fire Station in London.

It's the same premises that had a moment of fame a couple of years ago when it was fitted with solar panels. My calculations show that the electricity used by the new display exceeds by many times that generated by the panels. As well as advertising airlines (how is selling more flights compatible with the Fire Brigade's admirable carbon reduction policy I wonder) daily headlines from Sky News are also displayed. This is an innovation that drivers could well do without.

Experts claim that there is more than enough signage and distractions on busy roads.

Despite this panel being in operation for months the planning application has only just been received. This is not uncommon. There is no mercy for those who drive twenty yards in a bus lane, but illegal advertising often goes unnoticed for years.

But why do near-monopolists like Microsoft and British Gas feel the need to spend thousands of pounds on roadside hoardings? In some case it will bring increased sales or drive higher prices. But most often it is a matter of increasing the value of the brand, and hence of the company itself. Both consumers and businesses like to buy a name they know.

And as accounting practices require brand value to be itemised on the balance sheet you don't have to sell more of anything to do business: put your name about and when the time is right sell the company, or a share of it.

Economists see advertising as no different to 'research and development'. Both provide a return on investment, even if it is only R&D that increases the value of the product and enhances consumer benefit. For many industries both advertising and research are needed to maintain market share, if the competition is playing the same game. Those not in the top tier will find it tough as it is the advertising with the widest reach that brings the highest return rates. (Just as it is with political parties in fact....)

So long as the authorities allow hoardings on our roadsides large companies (or indeed political parties) will fill the space. But maybe we would be doing them a favour if we managed to curb the excess. More money for useful research. Lower prices. Targeted, rather than indiscriminate, growth. And a fairer market in which small size is not quite such a handicap for a business.

To say nothing of less carbon emissions and maybe fewer road accidents.

James Page is an Industry Policy Advisor for the Green Party

This article first appeared in the Ecologist December 2008


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