Reimagining Urban Space with Positive Ads | Paris

A typical ad in a Paris street

A typical ad in a Paris street

by Kyrill Hartog

Confronted by shifting demographics and political instability, European societies are suffering from a profound identity crisis. But, as old traditions disappear, they also create space for a new collective story. It is in the public spaces of multicultural cities that we find the greatest potential to tell this story. So why are communal spaces in cities today utterly lacking in imagination? We need to reimagine our urban spaces. But this begins buy no longer selling them off to the highest bidder.

I recently moved to Paris, where I live on the Boulevard Jourdan, a wide street lined with big poplars. From my bedroom window on the first floor I enjoy a great view of these poplars.

About a week ago I came home from class late one night and felt that something was off. The light in my room had changed. Everything felt somewhat different. Glancing out of the window, I caught sight of a huge billboard on the other side of my street.

Now, every time I look outside I see David Beckham’s abs. Four seconds later the screen flips to a car that nobody can afford. Four more seconds and I’m staring at the breasts of an underwear model that nobody will have sex with.

photo by Mick ter Reehorst

photo by Mick ter Reehorst

In this day and age, it might seem nostalgic and slightly after-the-fact to be whining about advertising, but my problem with this billboard is really quite simple: I can no longer enjoy my view. The trees offer no protection from the billboard’s aggressive neon flashes. It’s like when you meet somebody at a café and there’s a TV on in the background; it’s impossible to keep your eyes off the screen. Of course I can close my curtains to block out its flashing presence, but that would mean giving in. It would mean the billboard wins.

Invasive ads in public spaces no longer surprise us. We never truly stop to think about advertising until it invades our lives. Ever since I had my moment, I cannot help but wonder how many others like me are staring at the same empty images as they eat their dinner with the curtains drawn or smoke a cigarette with the window open. The whole situation is a metaphor for the giant marketplace that our world has become: an enormous, flashing billboard. The more we integrate our daily lives with technology, the more windows we build into our lives, and the harder it becomes to close the curtains. Just watch any Black Mirror episode: we’re not there yet, but we might be closer than we think.

Instead, we could imagine what else could be on that billboard - a lot of people are dreaming up creative ways of using advertising in public spaces.

In my case, somebody decided that my street needed a billboard. But who? Was there a vote? If not, shouldn’t there be a way for residents to have a say over what their neighborhood looks like? And, political questions aside, I can’t help but wonder: who is this billboard for? For people like myself? I live in a working-class neighborhood, mostly populated by students and immigrants. Is this really what the majority of the people who walk these streets, day in day out, want to see? Beckham, cars, and boobs?

But besides not resonating with the type of people who live here, it’s also just bad marketing: I’m pretty sure none of my neighbors will ever be able to afford that Jaguar sportscar. This exposes a larger problem: we feel that we have no say in the way the world around us is structured. This feeling starts at the local level and goes all the way up into global affairs. What can one individual do about an annoying billboard? But let’s realize for a moment that we’re talking about a public space. There are spaces that belong to you and me, to the 'demos' that makes up the word ‘democracy’ . It’s the space right here outside my window, on the street that was built by taxpayer’s money, a street that is administered by a democratically elected government whose job it is to represent our interests — not a private space owned by H&M, Jaguar, or Calvin Klein.

So what’s to be done? Burn the billboard to the ground in anarchic anti-capitalist fury?

Instead, we could imagine what else could be on that billboard. A lot of people are dreaming up creative ways to use advertising in public spaces. There are photojournalist collectives like Dysturb, who paste large images on boring buildings and bare walls in city streets. Often, the images are socially significant. They confront passersby with global warming, war and people living under harsh circumstances. Or take the Guerrilla Girls, who put up provocative billboards all over the world highlighting sexism, racism and institutional inequality in satirical and original ways. But alternative advertising doesn’t always have to be political. The aim could be to make a boring part of a city more exciting: a group of people in London replaced all the usual ads in the London underground with huge blown-up images of cute cats.

The guerrilla girls are known for pasting provocative billboards in public spaces

The guerrilla girls are known for pasting provocative billboards in public spaces

Why they did it? In their own words:

“Wouldn’t it be great not to worry about the holiday we can’t afford, the car we don’t need, or the body we don’t have? Imagine a world where public spaces made you feel good.”

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

Advertising impacts who we are

Since Edward Bernays — Freud’s nephew — invented advertising as we know it today, we’ve taken things to a whole new level. It’s not only our personal lives that are shaped by the ads around us; we increasingly define our social, political, and moral identities through the products we buy or boycott. As Slavoj Zizek points out, there used to be a difference between what you did to earn (and spend) your money, and what you did for your society. In today’s capitalism, your duty to do something for others and the environment is already included in the price of your consumption. Basically, you no longer have to feel guilty for being selfish, just as long as you are the right kind of selfish. He gives a simple example: you buy a cup of fair-trade coffee at Starbucks and you’re contributing to decent wages for farmers. Capitalist exploitation and altruistic charity are combined in the price of one latte macchiato.

You’re saving the world. You get karma points.

'Greenwashing' is a form of spin in which green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization's products, aims or policies are environmentally friendly.

'Greenwashing' is a form of spin in which green marketing is deceptively used to promote the perception that an organization's products, aims or policies are environmentally friendly.

The capitalist definition of freedom

I open Facebook and scroll down my homepage. A friend of mine is traveling through North Korea. She’s shared some pictures of her trip. The architecture looks depressingly Soviet-style. The people don’t smile. Everyone looks poor and miserable. I click through the album. Here’s a selfie with a little boy wearing a military uniform. Then a picture of the capital, Pyong-Yang, flashes by. My finger pauses. Grey apartments, as far as the eye can see. An avenue lined with giant billboards splits two blocks of apartments. On either sides of the avenue, tall billboards display various forms of government propaganda, consisting mostly of huge blow-ups of military parades and slogans written in Korean. I notice an open window in one of the apartment buildings. Looking closer, I spot a human figure sitting in the windowsill, a young man, smoking a cigarette, his gaze fixed at some distant point on the horizon.

Suddenly it hits me: he and I are not all that different.

I too, am forced to stare at a billboard each time I look outside. Of course we are worlds apart. I am free to go wherever, do whatever and say whatever — and he is not. But how different is the propaganda we are confronted with? The essence of what’s going on here is the same. The difference is in the brand: Kim Yung-Un or H&M.

For a brief moment I struggle to see the difference at all. 

Capitalist exploitation and altruistic charity combined in one latte macchiato. You’re saving the world. You get karma points.
photo by Mick ter Reehorst

photo by Mick ter Reehorst

Obviously, the difference between us is that he has no choice but to support the communist dictatorship of North Korea, whereas I’m not forced to buy H&M clothing. This is the capitalist definition of freedom: the freedom of choice. If Shakespeare were alive today, he might have wondered what “To buy or not to buy”. But by chasing this type of freedom we have surrendered a different one: the freedom not to have to choose at all. The freedom to stare out of a window without being confronted by yet another decision on an endless rope of consumption choices, a rope that runs all the way back to our cradle and all the way forward into our graves. If life is defined as the walk on this tightrope, I am interested in knowing what our footing is.

Positive propaganda: imagining useful advertising

Perhaps it is made up of what Rebecca Solnit calls the “shadow economy of hope”, an invisible world filled with the things we do and create for each other out of affection and idealism. In her own words:

What actually sustains life is far closer to home and more essential, even if deeper in the shadows, than market forces and much more interesting than selfishness.

If this shadow economy is as large as she claims, I am hopeful. But why does it have to be in the shadows? If there is so much goodness in human interaction, why aren’t we proudly displaying it in our public spaces? If we want to find out what unites European societies on this divided continent, perhaps we should put effort into communicating messages that unite us. As far as the European Union goes, this means spreading messages that go beyond the economic benefits of European integration. It means speaking the language of the most disenfranchised layers of society who do not see the point of European cooperation, for whom open trade means losing their job and open borders means losing their identity to foreigners.

We need to start defining the things that unite us beyond the sphere of consumption. This means identifying values that go beyond conscious lifestyle choices and socially aware products. It means resisting the temptation to sell off public spaces to the highest bidder.  

I close my eyes and imagine a utopia: a city where billboards are converted into storytelling boards about the people who live there, about their culture and their history, their achievements and their future hopes. I imagine a city where the full potential of today’s technology is harnessed to create a sense of belonging and identification. I imagine a city decorated with beautiful photography and inspirational quotes, with daily news messages to keep people informed about the local activities going on in their neighborhoods. I imagine George Orwell’s 1984, but filled with positive propaganda.

Am I being naive for believing in common spaces that unite us? Perhaps, but let’s consider the possibilities that arise if we’d ask our governments to get creative. If done properly, these initiatives could be bottom-up and democratic: there could be an online polling system for citizens to vote on their favorite image of the day. There could be hotspots with screens displaying a live Twitter feed of citizens informing each other about anything and everything: a traffic accident, a talented street musician, a full moon or the opening of a new restaurant. These are the kinds of initiatives that create solidarity and spark the political imagination. They are key in creating an informed and engaged population. More fundamentally, a large amount of people might feel less isolated — leading to a happier, healthier society.

Worth a try, I’d say.


Kyrill is an Are We Europe co-founder and editor