Outdoor advertising used to be seen by many people as a blight on the visual landscape of our cities and suburbs. But, just as authorised graffiti becomes "street art", outdoor advertising takes on a new respectability when it is "street furniture".
JCDecaux, global leaders in "street furniture" (who claim to work in partnership with more than 3500 town and city auhorities in 45 different countries), are signing contracts with more and more Australian municipal councils and transport authorities to build and maintain bus shelters, phone booths and the like in exchange for advertising placement rights on that furniture... and hence in our city streets and public landscapes. This is a somewhat different situation from the old days where a building owner sold space on his outside wall for a billboard, or a farmer allowed a "Golden Fleece Roadhouse, 5 miles" sign in the paddock by the highway.
How does JCDecaux choose sites for this "street furniture"? You might expect that public resources provided on public land under the terms of a contract with a public authority would be located where they will best serve the public. However, the evidence suggests otherwise, namely that the key advertising principle of exposure ranks significantly higher on the JCDecaux priority list than does any analysis of public utility.
As the company notes on its Australian website (under "Why JCDecaux"), "...we invest only (my emphasis) where high volume, high quality audiences are assured". Their Citylights advertising panels (the name they give to their bus and tram shelter sites) "...are a (sic) specially developed network to reach (sic) higher volumes of audience (sic) and higher income earners with disposable incomes (sic)". [Note: The appalling lack of copywriting skill on the JCDecaux website has made me "sic" all over the place!]
That's hardly surprising for an outdoor advertising company, after all. Yet some local councils seem to be trying to have their ratepayers believe that JCDecaux is providing these resources out of pure public-spiritedness. When push comes to shove, of course JCDecaux will put commercial consderations first.
South Sydney Council's arrangements with JCDecaux in the late 1990s apparently led to the unilateral relocation of bus shelters without community consultation (as noted by then NSW Parliamentarian Clover Moore, now Sydney's Lord Mayor)
The Pedestrian Council of Australia has noted that "in many cases, JC Decaux has placed... scrolling billboards directly in front of pedestrian crossings at some of the busiest intersections in the CBD", warning of their "propensity to distract drivers from watching the road and the traffic lights".
And my own experience suggests that when Councils take a laissez faire attitude to the French company's approach to the placement of advertising - sorry, street furniture - the outcomes can actually diminish public utility and cause public nuisance. Banyule City Council, which takes in the well-to-do Melbourne suburbs of Ivanhoe and Eaglemont as well as socioeconomically disadvantaged and refugee communities in West Heidelberg, announced in July 2005 that it had awarded a 15-year contract to JCDecaux "to supply, install and maintain 119 bus shelters and associated rubbish bins on main arterial and local roads throughout the municipality". The first of these of which I became aware was installed in a position where the large advertising poster on the end of the shelter completely obscured the vision of drivers attempting to make a right turn into a notorious stretch of one of these arterial roads... where it was odds-on to cause arterial bleeding!
Banyule Council received numerous calls from concerned residents even as the JCDecaux tradies were finishing the installation - nothing to do with the advertising, merely the lethality of its placement. The poster was replaced with clear glass, but this doesn't mean the same thing isn't happening at numerous other locations around the country.
And while (as per the press release) the local Councillors staged their launch photo opportunity at a new shelter in in West Heidelberg's "Mall", you can rest assured that JCDecaux will have done its sums in planning its Banyule bus shelter portfolio: a few freebies in areas like the Olympic Village are more than made up for by the fees recouped from selling ad space in other "high volume" sites with "high quality audiences".