JC Decaux makes my day

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The ubiquitous Sydney advertising billboards of JCDecaux are an unwelcome, dangerous and costly intrusion, says Associate Professor Evan Jones.

I live in Sydney’s Inner West. I prefer to take the light rail to the City rather than the bus because of the relative tranquility of the journey.

With one exception — the advertising billboards of JCDecaux. Not only do they intrude by their presence on the stations, but they move. Their industry nomenclature appears to be ‘backlit scrolling billboards’. They scroll, they distract, they make a noise, and they seriously disrupt the tranquility. I detest them.

The damn things are also lined up on the verge of Airport Drive on the way to Sydney’s International Airport. They are dangerous to boot, as the aim is to divert attention yet the road is a busy quasi-freeway.

JCDecaux was invited to Sydney by Frank Sartor, then Lord Mayor (1991-2003), to ‘beautify’ the city. Admittedly, the Decaux bus shelters are elegant, but the billboards cluttering footpaths and elsewhere are an ugly intrusion — and not least the footpath billboards masquerading as telephone booths. The latter are placed next to the road to divert driver attention, so they don’t work as telephone booths because of the noise. They are a joke.

JCDecaux is said to be the largest outdoor advertising company in the world. It’s nearly everywhere in the better-off countries; its reach keeps expanding and it has the arrogance to match. Decaux thinks it’s doing the world a favour. Decaux started in street furniture; with the acquisition of Avenir in 1999, Decaux claims that it is now the No.1 large format display company in Europe, with 219,500 such billboards in 33 countries. God help us.

JCDecaux is the first of a trio of outdoor advertising companies dominating the French landscape (with Clear Channel, which has absorbed Adshel, and CBS — both North American-based). The players are fronted by their powerful lobby, l’Union de la publicité extérieure. JCDecaux achieved its critical mass by leveraging its influence with public officials. It is noteworthy that the top brass of JCDecaux were present at Nicholas Sarkozy’s fabled Presidential Victory dinner at Fouquet’s restaurant on 6 May 2007, mixing it with Sarkozy’s business and ideological elite.

JCDecaux has one thing in its favour — Sanisettes. The sanisette public toilet system is replacing the non-existent or primitive ‘amenities’ in Paris; long overdue. JCDecaux also earns some marks for its management of urban bicycle rental systems. But the velo systems are public initiatives, with JCDecaux winning the tender (as in Paris) to provide them. With the Paris network exposed to unexpected high levels of vandalism, and so on, it is the City, not the company, that pays the bills.

But JCDecaux’s raison d’être is to pollute the visual environment. Its spiel to prospective advertisers is that they have a greater visual polluting footprint than their rivals. JCDecaux paid the upfront cost of the Paris velo system and in return got the right to erect 1600 billboards around the city. Municipalities trade off their town’s visual amenity to assuage their budgetary pressures.

One needs bus shelters, so perhaps one has to tolerate advertisements on bus shelters, although it is not ideal (what are the terms of the deal with the municipalities?) I would rather see, say, art works on the shelters that educate and inspire. But one certainly doesn’t need stand alone billboards. Their 2x1 metre metal construction is a waste of resources. And the scrolling billboards are not merely a visual irritation — they also consume electricity.

Electricity consumption continues at night, with only the Man in the Moon in attendance. And this to push the PR of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, seeking to divert attention from a string of recent allegedly corrupt practices.

There is now a moral imperative to reduce energy consumption. Here we have non-renewable energy sourced electricity being consumed needlessly, so that JCDecaux can draw advertising revenue from three companies simultaneously rather than one.

A meeting of the Council of the European Union, 20 December 2004, accepted the necessity (post-Kyoto) for the advanced European countries to dramatically reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. In 2005, France inscribed an objective of a greater than 70 per cent reduction of current emission by 2050, implying an average annual reduction of close to 3 per cent.

So what is JCDecaux doing to contribute to the cause?

First, by revving up its hot air emissions. The French corporates love their Corporate Social Responsibility cachet (Responsabilité sociale des enterprises) as much as the English-speaking equivalents, perhaps even more. JCDecaux is right in the jet stream of the CSR/RSE hyperbole. This from the company’s website:
Since the beginning, the JCDecaux group has been committed to working proactively with cities, transport companies, airports and advertisers as well as media and advertising agencies to improve the urban environment. JCDecaux and its subsidiaries endeavour to:

  • Pursue and intensify the implementation of measures that will minimise the impact of the Group's activities on the environment: mainly, but not exclusively, by reducing energy and water consumption and by recycling posters and other waste;

  • Pursue eco-design in the re-engineering of existing products and the creation of new products; intensify the use of lifecycle analysis; and increase the development and implementation of "green" products;  …

  • Develop and implement a policy to reduce carbon emissions…

  • Back in the real world, JCDecaux is expanding its electricity consumption willy-nilly. JCDecaux is part owner of Metrobus, the advertising company that has a contract with the Parisian transport authorities RATP and SNCF. In 2009, Metrobus began rolling out 160x90cm LCD panels on metro and RER stations (already blanketed with conventional advertising), said to now total 400 in number and operating 24 hours a day.

    The French being French, a philo-sociological analysis is imperative. The Collectif des Déboulonneurs, an anti-advertising protest group, claims (June 2011) ‘the flood of images mechanically cuts all capacity for personal reflection and can even arrest conversation’.

    Hervé Kempf, environment columnist for Le Monde claims (June 2011):
    ‘…one habituates oneself to the multiplication of screens, in the cafés, the commercial centres, diverse public spaces, and to the permanent hubbub of sounds and images aimed at shutting up society into partitioned individual consumers, strangers to others, riveted to the screen.’

    The screen deployers are evidently intent on soaking up the time still extant when the partitioned consumers are not glued to their smartphones.

    Dissenters claim that each panel consumes as much power as three 4-person households (excluding heating). Dissenters also claim that RATP/SNCF revenues from these advertising contracts are derisory. The Déboulonneurs ask: ‘who is calling the tune?’

    It happens that such panels were originally mounted with a camera behind that monitors ‘viewers’ and their reactions. The RATP has apparently disconnected these cameras under protest, but they remain in place to complement next generation technology which pushes panel-viewer interfaces. New technologies are already being rolled out in Sydney, with Opera House management a willing partner in the invasion. Says Steve O’Connor, CEO of JCDecaux Australia, “our sector is reaching a tipping point where we see new levels of [consumer] connectivity not so-far achievable in the out of home industry”. The screens and the smartphones will be integrated and it’s all over red rover for detachment from the machine.

    With opposition mounting in France, a consultation process was begun in late 2010 (part of La Loi Grenelle) under President Sarkozy’s Ecology Minister, Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet. The process was intended to formalise the access to public space of the companies but also specifically to constrain that access. Accompanying this process, in June 2011 the Paris city council apparently determined that the maximum authorised size of advertising panels would be cut from 12 to 8 square metres. In addition, there would be mandated a requirement of at least 25 metres between panels.

    An industry analyst saw red. He is reported as claiming:
    The restrictions will hurt all the players in the outdoor advertising space, but particularly JCDecaux, the world's largest outdoor advertising group by revenue and the biggest in Paris … as Paris represents 4 per cent to 5 per cent of its total revenue.”

    The decision could
    “…motivate other cities across France to follow suit, and possibly other European capitals to review their openness to what is described by opponents as visual pollution. … In countries such as Germany and Nordic countries where the green political power is particularly strong, we see risk of contagion over time.”

    Risk of contagion indeed. Here is a call to arms against those who would deny the companies’ god-given rights to profit.

    But the new resolutions proved to be less than resolute. JCDecaux responded by immediately upping the pace — moving to install LCD screens at airports, TGV stations and even traffic intersections. In June 2012, we find that JCDecaux LCD screens are now being unveiled in Paris bus shelters, courtesy of the Mayoralty (currently Parti Socialiste), and labeled ‘intelligent urban furniture’. Next the Tuileries and the Jardin du Luxembourg? The forecourt of the Louvre? And of course the churches, providing a hotline to Heaven?

    If it’s Tuesday, this must be Belgium. But it’s another round of McDonald’s, Starbucks, Coca Cola and JCDecaux billboards. Remind me why we’re here?

    The supposedly up-scale 16th Arrondissement of Paris (Decaux’s own image).

    French surveys consistently report that over 80 per cent of respondents are opposed to this further appropriation of public space. Remarkably, some groupings have arisen to give voice to a general public seemingly without influence. There are at least four groups who have taken up the battle cry against the billboarders’ war machine – Résistance à l’agression publicitaire, Collectif des déboulonneurs, Paysages de France, and Casseurs de pub.

    There appears to be de facto a division of labour amongst the groups. Formal representation to the authorities is part of the activity, but an important part of the resistance involves going around defacing billboards. Here’s some instances of their artwork.

    Déboulonneurs handiwork, Lyon, May 2011.

    Déboulonneurs handiwork, Rouen, October 2011. Play on words: advertising drains your pocket but also your brain.

    Déboulonneurs handiwork, Rouen, October 2011. A tree here instead?

    For which the defacers are arrested and perennially face court proceedings. But here is the response of the Déboulonneurs collective, in an open letter to NKM, 27 March 2012, calling the then Minister as witness to the proceedings:
    Yes, we have defaced some advertising billboards with aerosols. We loudly proclaim that this symbolic gesture is necessary and legitimate. The creation of our collective in 2005 has been motivated by a simple fact. The law regulating advertising display is extremely permissive and, moreover, is not even respected. The powers that be have acquiesced for thirty years in inaction, indeed in complicity with the companies, meanwhile engaging in agreeable chatter on the invasion of advertising in the public domain. Faced with this hypocrisy and these ‘democratic’ charades preventing any debate, the act of civil disobedience should provoke, we would hope, a response.

    You will have well understood this state of play; it is as the former Minister and, more specifically, as the initiator of the work of the Conseil National du Paysage on advertising display that we appeal to you. On your invitation, we have actively participated in this process for three years. We have proposed numerous concrete steps as well as their legislative and regulatory requirements to limit the visual pollution of outside advertising.

    Alas, the outcome of the Grenelle process on advertising reflects that which we have been exposing since 2005. Between cynicism and a ‘contest of cowardice’ [NKM’s own phrase describing dysfunctional conflict in her own governing UMP Party] the texts have finally been tailored to suit the billboard companies, headed by JCDecaux: legalisation of illegal placements, extension of giant canvases, massive appearance of LCD screens, reintroduction in national parks or adjacent to historic monuments … This ‘reform’ reaches its apotheosis with the publication of the decree of 31 January last. You have agreed to sign a text dictated by the professionals. According to your entourage, “the people of Decaux have literally held the pen for you to write the decree. If any detail hasn’t pleased them, they have had it re-written...”

    The Déboulonneurs’ letter notes that NKM’s own Ministry estimated that within this new framework, the billboarders will see their revenues grow by 30%. Decaux’s own images for Paris, in spruiking its advertising coverage prowess, disclose that the size and spacing restrictions supposedly recently imposed are not operative. Welcome to Paris, reputedly beautiful — but better hurry.

    The presence of Decaux’s principals at Sarkozy’s Presidential bash highlights that it pays to be well connected. (It has shades of the ‘contest of cowardice’ amongst the political and regulatory classes facing the might of the Big 4 banks and the retail duopoly in Australia.)

    The despoiling of the Sydney landscape by JCDecaux is gathering pace, but it appears that it still has a long way to go.

    Is this trend inevitable? It is instructive to note that, in 2006, the mayor of Sao Paulo (Brazil’s biggest city) took on the billboarders and won. A ‘Clean City’ law was passed in January 2007 for implementation in April, banning all billboard advertising and forcing size reductions on business shopfront publicity. The public supported the move. The lobby called it fascist (the business press called the mayor a ‘right-wing populist’) and sued, but lost. The city was re-discovered as dismantling took place. The mayor was re-elected in 2008.

    But in 2009, the same mayor relented marginally, offering contracts on bus stop advertising. A minor concession? The revenue to the municipal purse will help. But, ah, but the enemy is inside the gate. This is how Decaux began its rise to glory. Watch this space?

    Elections are due for Sydney’s Municipal Council in September. What chance the new Council directing its attention to JCDecaux’s crusade for visual polluting dominance of the Sydney streetscape?

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