São Paulo Bans Outdoor Ads in Fight Against Pollution

Sao Paulo Skyline
São Paulo's skyline.
Photo by Danorbit via Flickr

In January, the city of São Paulo, Brazil, enacted a ban on virtually all outdoor advertising. Billboards, neon signs, and even buses and taxis have been wiped clean of advertisements in the municipality, the world’s fourth largest. According to Mayor Gilberto Kassab, the so-called “Clean City Law” arose from a need to address rising pollution of all kinds, including air, water, and noise. “We decided that we should start combating pollution with the most conspicuous sector—visual pollution,” he was reported as saying.

Since its adoption, the law has eliminated some 15,000 billboards as well as other ads citywide, and has generated more than $8 million in fines, David Evan Harris reports in Adbusters. While some advertising and business groups complain that the ban limits free expression, costs jobs, and makes streets less safe by reducing lighting from signage, the move has won more than 70 percent approval from São Paulo residents, many of whom appreciate the aesthetics of a city with less advertising.

The ban has led some critics to question whether there are not more pressing issues that deserve the enormous inputs of time and resources required in implementation. But Worldwatch Institute research associate Erik Assadourian says such laws are important for a perhaps less obvious reason: combating global warming. “It’s not simply greenhouse gases that cause climate change—it’s our consumer lifestyle that causes the greenhouse gases that cause climate change,” he notes. “Until we end consumerism and the rampant advertising that drives it, we will not solve the climate crisis.”

Brazil experienced a nearly 15 percent increase in advertising between 2004 and 2005, and a 22 percent increase the year before that, according to the June 2006 issue of Universal McCann’s Insider’s Report. In contrast, the world advertising growth rate was only 4.7 percent between 2004 and 2005, and 11 percent the previous year.

São Paolo is not the only municipality to take action against outdoor advertising. This spring, the municipal government of Beijing, China’s capital city, began reducing ads by targeting billboards for luxury housing. “Many [of the ads] use exaggerated terms that encourage luxury and self-indulgence which are beyond the reach of low-income groups and are therefore not conducive to harmony in the capital,” the city’s mayor, Wang Qishan, told The Wall Street Journal.

Ironically, São Paulo’s ban has exposed previously hidden inequality within the city. Vinicius Galvao, a reporter for Brazil’s largest paper, Folha de São Paulo, told NPR’s On the Media that residents were seeing long-standing favelas, or slum-like neighborhoods, for the first time because they had previously been blocked from view by billboards. And people passing by certain shops whose windows were once covered by ads now look in to see poorly treated immigrant laborers, who had once worked and slept in the shops unnoticed. As the ads come down and more of the city is revealed— including its impressive urban architecture—citizens are adjusting to their new landscape. “The city’s got...[a] new language, a new identity,” Galvao said.

This story was produced by Eye on Earth, a joint project of the Worldwatch Institute and the blue moon fund. View the complete archive of Eye on Earth stories, or contact Staff Writer Alana Herro at aherro [AT] worldwatch [DOT] org with your questions, comments, and story ideas.