By Anjith Augustine (Architect/Urban Designer)
B.Arch/M.Arch (Urban Design)-School of Planning & Architecture, New Delhi
Founder & Principal Architect, City+Futures Design Collaborative, Aluva
There was a time when artists used to spend endless nights hanging on a bamboo scaffolding giving finishing touches to the painting of film stars promoting different companies. Those were the days when advertisement was an art and people associated were artists. But the situation has changed drastically overtime and now huge flex boards and digital/LED displays have replaced the old billboards. But what has remained unchanged is our obsession towards advertisements and the inappropriate methods to project it to the public.
In the context of the discussions happening over banning flex boards in Kerala, it is important to view it from a different perspective. Of course the intent of the decision to make environment friendly state is good, but the real problem lies somewhere else. It lies within us, within our society where profit has a key role to play in determining such decisions. Following the ban on flex boards, a newspaper daily reported that task force of the Kochi Corporation removed nearly 400 unauthorised boards along the roads of the city. According to the SPIA (Sign Printing Industries Association), there are about 1,800 units in the State with an investment of nearly Rs.10000 Crore. This is huge in terms of sheer numbers. If we analyse the functional network of this industry, the number of people associated will be much more in number starting from the people who design it to the people who work on scaffoldings to erect it. So before we jump into conclusions, it will be quite interesting to understand the issues, analyse them and come to a meaningful solution.
The brand Kerala
Kerala is a commercially oriented state where every business tries to find a commercial potential in the least available space. Last year a budding LED manufacturer who returned from the gulf countries came to me with a business idea of making every house on roadside LED lit advertisement spaces, where the owner shares profit with the client! Film stars, whom we idolize in our life endorse almost everything we use in our daily life. That’s the kind of association we have with brands and branding. Out of the different advertising strategies, road side flex boards and billboards occupy a key position. One reason for this is attributed to the peculiar linear urban development pattern in Kerala. This kind of development promotes movement along the main roads and makes it potential commercial space. Also typically being an educated society, advertisements are easily reaching out to the public and eventually into sales and trade. Thus every trader tries to find a potential display space in his realm of operations, whether it be at the shop front or on the top of a bus stand, or near the railway line or even right across the road. Private land owners rent out land to put up advertisements along the main roads as it is a source of quick money without any commitments.
A quick survey done by our team in a busy stretch of one kilometre in NH47 in Aluva showed very interesting results. Initially we mapped all the billboards and commercial spaces along the highway for which we got around 54 numbers. Then we went on to collect samples from 50 people who daily commute on the same route to find out the following results. Seventy five percent of the commuters using vehicles have seen 70% of the advertisements at least once during their daily commute. The study shows that they spend two to four seconds reading the advertisement, which means a person driving across spends at least two to three minutes of their drive time to cover one kilometre on reading advertisements. The fact remains that this is enough time to take their lives in a road accident. So the impact will be huge if we take the overall scenario of Kerala.
As per Kerala police records over 35000 vehicle accidents were registered in the year 2013. Though the reasons are attributed to tangible factors like road conditions & safety measures, intangible factors like catchy advertisements along the roads also result in such fatalities. We may think that there are laws and rules to control the over powering of advertisements in India. But at present in India, there is no central statutory agency or uniform legislation regulating the advertising industry. The Indian advertising market as a whole is regulated and controlled by a non-statutory body, the Advertising Standards Council of India (ASCI). In the absence of uniform integrated legislation, it is necessary for advertisers to ensure that an advertisement is in compliance with all local and national advertisement laws.
As for pedestrians when we asked whether they prefer seeing advertisements or the beautiful Periyar River, the obvious choice was the latter. But sadly the present scenario doesn’t permit us to do so as we are forced to read the commercials selling their brand standing right between us and the Periyar River.
Ideal Urban Experience- Examples from other cities
Looking at cities worldwide, we can see examples for both the extremes. For example Times Square in New York is one place where advertisements almost take up the entire street facades. Contrarily Beijing, in its readiness for the Olympics had decided to remove all hoardings within the city. The idea was ‘to sanitize the city’s image’. An advertising ban had been extended across most parts of the city. City officials want to prevent Beijing from becoming one very big Times Square. Now billboards are to be allowed only along the fifth ring road encircling the city – many miles away from the city centre.
Similarly, Arnold Schwarzenegger, as governor of California had enforced strict regulations on outdoor advertisements. The state’s outdoor advertising act 2005 is intended to protect public investment in highways, to promote the safety and recreational value of public travel, and to preserve natural beauty. Sydney considers commercial signs (hoardings) only necessary when they are important to the amenity of the city.
Thus there is an international debate already going on regarding the controls and regulatory limits for advertisements on streets. A Times Square full of advertisements or a Beijing with no billboards is not going to be the ultimate solution. The need of the hour is a clear policy regarding advertisements, its reach and extends. We should consider safety and urban experience as crucial factors while dealing with advertisements on road. A balance between these factors and the interests of the advertisers should be an ideal scenario that we are looking for.
Need for a design guidelines manual for a holistic, aesthetic & safer urban experience
India has already taken up initiatives in such front which can be a model for our state. For example the Delhi Outdoor Advertisement Policy 2008, an initiative by the Municipal Corporation of Delhi (MCD) finalized as per the directions of the Hon’ble Supreme Court by the Environment Pollution (Prevention and Control) Authority sets out clear directions of use, usable spaces, and guidelines for advertisements. Some of the key points focused in the document are regarding the contents of the advertisements, structures erected for such advertisements, public liability insurance, appropriate sites etc. For example the rules stipulate that the Licensee shall provide evidence of public liability insurance for the particular types of advertising devices and activities located within the boundaries of MCD. Similarly there are certain stipulated areas where advertising may be inappropriate due to the nature of the surrounding area. This includes ASI protected monument precincts, other historically significant regions, religiously important areas etc.
Also sustainability is given due importance in the document. To promote conservation of electricity, policy states that the illumination at all outdoor advertising devices shall draw power from alternate renewable resources like solar power. Again regarding the Contents in the advertisement, the policy strictly projects the avoidance of obscenity, pornography, addictive products etc. The content or graphic layout exhibited on advertising device panel shall avoid hard-to-read and overlay intricate typefaces and have recommended for letter styles that are appropriate. Advertisements which would necessitate the driver or passenger in a moving vehicle to stop, read and note down, which is detrimental to the smooth flow of traffic and distracting the driver, should be avoided as per the manual.
The advertisement policy document should ideally be detailed to an extent, where specifications are given even for the font types and sizes to be used. Board sizes, viewing angles etc. should be specified. Taking examples from other countries and Indian cities like Delhi, a comprehensive outdoor policy giving focus on the urban experience and safety is suggested. To prepare such a policy document government have to bring together people from different fronts namely representatives from government bodies responsible for protecting the law, people from the advertising field- both designers and branding agencies, urban designers, structural engineers etc. An efficient Outdoor Advertisement Policy for Kerala can be brought forth by this participatory approach.
The cardinal principal is that it is not the total eradication which should be projected but the existence of a policy leaving no loopholes and making the conditions and restrictions transparent. The policy will also help to focus the advertisers to comprehend the matter which they want to show to the public. This will help to focus our efforts to reduce plastics, reduce road accidents and in particular enhance the urban experience of every Keralite. Let’s hope for a safe city ride, with unobstructed views of our heritage and natural landscape.