Friday, 10 June 2016

Where have all the billboards gone?

It's one of those random thoughts that might occur to anyone who is constantly aware of their surroundings. Who notices that some things that used to be ubiquitous have become rare - or are just not around any more.

It struck me just the other day that you don't see those big billboards or hoardings about like you used to - the sort that hid building sites from view, or thrust a giant message at you as you drove in or out of town. They were once a very common sight indeed.

I delved into the Melford Photo Archive to research the matter, on the basis that many of these billboards or hoardings carried prime examples of the advertiser's art, and were well worth photographing; that I must in fact have been taking pictures of them throughout the last few decades.

I would of course have shot only the ones that appealed strongly to me, and in circumstances where I could get close enough to frame the picture successfully - not always physically possible, if it meant standing in the middle of a busy road, or an impatient stream of commuters. And I'd be handicapped - until quite recently - by a certain shyness (yes, I was once shy!) that might have stopped me using my camera in a very public place. Nevertheless, I must surely have been constantly taking pictures of advertisement hoardings with eye-catching things pasted onto them: there must be many examples to dig out from every decade. That would prove that my current impression was mistaken.

But not so.

Most of my billboard pictures - whether commercial, political, or public-information - had ended up in a Windows folder on my PC called 'Posters'. This obviously included much smaller examples of artwork down to A4 size, the sort stuck on pub walls say, and not just the giant ones. It was the giant posters I wanted to look at. But there were not so many of these as I'd thought, and they did not feature so often after the 1990s.

I had some good examples, though! For instance, these two classic ones from 1975 and 1983 for Heineken lager:


Very droll, aren't they? I had this late cigarette ad from 1998:


And this one, showing the model Jerry Hall, recently separated from Mick Jagger, advertising a wash-time fabric softener. She was 'plastered all over town' - a line from Jagger's bitter 1999 song Don't Call Me Up:


And then nothing more. I don't remember any particular reason for that. So far as I was aware there wasn't, for instance, any new legislation that had banned big billboards and hoardings; and advertising didn't cease to be. There was pressure on advertisers to meet ever-more-stringent standards that has continued till today. Here's a link to the pdf file for the government's comprehensive 33-page booklet on what public advertisements can look like in various situations: https://www.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/11499/326679.pdf. The requirements certainly do not outlaw big hoardings.

To be sure, I continued to shoot any poster that caught my eye, but now they were smaller. The sort seen on bus shelters, perhaps, beginning with this one, also from 1999, about some chewy strawberry-flavoured sweet (hence the fruit on her knickers):


The only giant posters captured by the Melford Lens were foreign ones. Like this one in Hong Kong in 2007:


And this one, which was much smaller - but irresistible, as it demonstrates what in 2007 was regarded as The Desired Penthouse Lifestyle for all young Hong Kong couples to aspire to:


Hmm. It's understandable, when some Hong Kong high-rise blocks looked like these:


Or the ordinary 'best' was like this:


The big posters on hoardings that I saw in Portugal and Italy in 2009 were mostly political...


...with the odd commercial or cultural one:


But in this country, nothing at all caught my eye. The biggest pasted-up ads seemed to be those on the walls of underground stations, such as these from 2010 and 2012:


London commuters and tourists are perhaps a specialised market. I don't think you'd have ever found ads like these on the big outdoor boards of older days.

So what had happened? I'm guessing four things.

One: the big empty city building sites that were once hedged in and concealed by massive hoardings - and then left like that for years on end - have now mostly gone. City land is just too valuable to be left vacant. Buildings are demolished, and the site redeveloped, before one's very eyes; and once taken down, the displaced hoardings may have nowhere else to go.

Two: local councils have surely been more assiduous in imposing the quite pernickety planning controls. That would make it harder or impossible to erect hoardings in new places. Their owners would be sitting ducks for fines. I shouldn't think there's a council in the land, in these cash-strapped times, who isn't alert to money-making opportunities: they would certainly hound easy victims and extract cash in fines.

Three: it's a bit of a niche job, pasting immense floppy bits of paper up on huge billboards. A skilful one too: definitely a job for a specialist. Maybe these specialists got rarer, or priced themselves out of contracts. Maybe the special paper needed got too expensive. Or the printing costs too high.

Four: a lot of advertising has gone virtual. It always was part of commercial TV, but now it's on every phone and other mobile device. And it reaches millions, not just those who happen to pass by the old-style billboard. Billboards must still exist somewhere, even if I don't know where, but I'd say they simply now echo the rather more insistent and intrusive messaging that everyone sees on the small screens there in their hands.

I can't decide whether I'm pleased or not about the apparent demise of the giant flapping paper advertisement or message. Even if they were witty or humorous or genuinely clever, the old hoardings hid a view of some kind, and might even blot out the sun. But the pop-up, auto-play ads on phones are an aggravating time-wasting nuisance.

1 comment:

  1. I just checked google street view as there were once two massive hoardings opposite my late grandmother's house in Swansea - they are now gone and replaced by a neat fence.

    In my hometown we have 4 prominent ones by the train station. I meant to get a photo of the one advertising "The Durrells" on ITV - a series I enjoyed as I was a big fan of the Gerals Durrell books. I missed my chance, now it is exam time of year & they are all promoting private schools in the local area to well to do parent commuters to London!

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