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October 2017
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Meanwhile: Grenoble saves itself from advertising

A world without any ads, without evil companies invading our lives trying to convince us to consume their products and without this whole segment of industry that is advertising: can you imagine it? It sounds almost medieval, although even then some forms of advertising were present, with street signs and town criers. But nowadays, in a world where we are constantly stimulated with posters, TV commercials and Internet ads; could a place without all this be a haven of peace? That is what the French city of Grenoble is striving for. Situated in the department of Isère, right next to the Alps, and with a population of around 160 000, the city’s council has decided to ban all commercial outdoor advertising.


This was not the most surprising decision, as the green party mayor of Grenoble, Eric Piolle had already promised this in his campaign before he was elected in April 2014. Besides, it will not be too complicated to achieve, as the city’s contract with advertising company JC Decaux ends this month. The mayor even has a tight economic plan to make sure no money will be lost.


Grenoble is not the first place to ban advertising from its streets. North Korea has no ads and billboard bans have been installed in some states in the US. The little town of Forcalquier was the first in France and already did it in 2009, but I think we can agree that such a decision would impact a village much less than an actual city. Ilse, a Communication and Media student at Erasmus University who is from a small town originally points out that she wouldn’t even notice if advertisements were gone from her village, because there simply is less advertising to start with.


The most impressive example of ad-banning comes from Brazil. There, in the twelfth largest city by population (11 million inhabitants) no ads can be seen on the streets since 2006, when the ‘Clean City Law’ was passed. Billboards, buses, shop fronts, they are all ad-free. A survey conducted in 2011 found that 70% of the inhabitants found the ban beneficial. Old architecture was rediscovered under the billboards, but one of the major benefits was that inequalities in the city’s district were exposed, now that these parts weren’t literally covered with billboards anymore, bringing the problems to light and inciting discussion.


It is improbable to say the least that these were the goals of such an average European city as Grenoble. As the Grenoble city website says, their goal is “to liberate public space of advertisements, protect children from the onslaught of big brands and free the local economy of the advertising pressure of large groups”. For some, this might sound ideal, but I think it actually might be just as far-fetched as it seems. Sure, a city without any outdoor ads might be less stressful, more in touch with nature (since they want to replace billboards with trees) and I completely agree with supporting local economies. However there is a catch, because not all advertisements can be banned. For one, posters at public transport stops will stay, because they fall under a different contract. But also think about what people do when they are not outside: watching TV, browsing the Internet, listening to the radio, reading magazines… All (virtual) things filled with ads. It is hard to escape from the influence of consumerism in our daily lives, but in the end we still partake in it voluntarily.


Now, a few cities in the world that exist without advertising to a certain extent could be envisionable, but in the end what good would it do? The children of Grenoble that are being saved from the big brands probably will still know them through other channels and if they ever go somewhere else they will still be prey to the evil influencing of the big billboards. I guess what we (and the city of Grenoble) need is a world without ads if we ever really want to achieve these idealistic goals. However, if a city without ads seems unrealistic, it would be impossible to completely ban advertisements from the world surface. What would happen to places like Tokyo or Times Square, one of the most visited tourist locations? Small villages can do without advertising, even cities can, but some places need advertising to survive, because it is exactly what makes them lively. And doesn’t the fact that Times Square attracts 39 million visitors every year show that maybe we actually enjoy advertisements?


All in all I think Grenoble has very (Gre)noble ideals, but banning half of the advertisements on the street will not be of significant help to achieve them. The scope is too small to actually make a change in people’s lifestyles and certainly much too small to change something about the capitalist Western world.

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