As much as people in the digital signage industry are understandably excited and enthused by the appearance of more and more digital displays in public spaces, it's important to remember that not everyone is in love with screens.
There's always some people who don't like ad posters and billboards just because. But there are others who have tangible, well-researched and argued positions about why they're not big fans.
I recently came across a small, grassroots campaign in the UK that has a running slogan of Take Down The Ads! It grew out of the appearance of LED ad spectaculars that went up a few years ago in a lovely, leafy part of southwest London.
Their appearance offended Amanda Benzecry, who has been leading an effort online and through the local government process to fight their existence, primarily on environmental grounds.
It could seem, from a distance, like just an effort to rid the neighborhood of something the locals don't like or understand. But Benzecry actually comes out of the advertising industry and understands how things work.
We had a great chat about why she and other similar efforts around the UK are fighting the steady influx of digital out of home displays, and the reasons behind their opposition.
Amanda, thank you for joining me. First of all, can you tell me what the Take Down the Ads movement is all about?
Amanda Benzecry: It goes back about six years and it all started with a very local issue, completely relevant to the immediate area in which I live and the appearance of three very large LED screens, I'm talking huge, now marketed as the Barnes Landmark and the Barnes Tower, which appeared without really much, or if any local consultation, and this is in Southwest London. It's on a road that is called the South Circular, but at the point in which these screens appeared, it's only a two-lane thing. So we're not talking about a big motorway and it is a gateway between a number of sort of conurbation, Barnes, Roehampton, Putney. It gets a reasonable amount of traffic going through it, but it is not a motorway.
It was previously characterized by being very dark and very leafy and sits opposite a designated nature reserve, which sounds weird for London, but we get these little pockets. The complication was that in this case, the screens went up on the land that belongs to a rugby club, so it's not like other LED screens around the borough, which sit on council land. This was actually an application by a rugby club. To have permission, to have screens erected, to generate funds, to ensure the future of the rugby club. And that was the justification for allowing the screens to be erected in a location that if you look at all the planning guidelines, it should not have been allowed, but they found a way around it.
Now, I don't believe that anybody should, and I'm not against the sport and not against rugby, but I don't think that given the location of those screens and the implications because it impacted on a wildlife corridor and bat movements and things like that. I have always campaigned on an environmental platform. So Take Down the Ads began with a specific campaign against those screens, and unfortunately, it became a sort of Twitter storm and I was accused of wanting to put a rugby club out of business, and it was never that. It has always been an environmental thing. And really the change to the landscape is absolutely unacceptable.
Also, this rugby club happened to be located in metropolitan open land. Metropolitan open land is afforded certain protections. So, the whole thing was really quite suspicious as well, and I think the key thing is, and this is what started the whole issue, is that the location was quite vulnerable in that there weren't many neighbors around because it was opposite a nature reserve because there is meant to be a degree of local consultation when certain screens go up, but then in this instance, they didn't need to be because nobody was effectively living immediately opposite. But my point was actually the result implicates the entire environment and all of us, even if we live a quarter of a mile away, I have to drive past them and I would really have liked the choice to comment as to whether I wanted to have these things up or not.
That's a very long explanation but Take Down the Ads started six years ago, but it started with a particular campaign. Then it grew, although it's much more challenging for me in this part of London, into looking at the incursion of these screens across the borough. I would say probably that we don't have too many, but I don't think we should have any because they are now on a scale that is completely unacceptable. They are marketed, the main contractor here is JC Decaux. They are marketed as towers. They are the size of buildings and we now have a number on high streets which are just huge and completely unnecessary and environmentally damaging and adding more clutter to what are extremely busy streetscapes, because remember, we don't have wide avenues in London. It's all very narrow, everybody's on top of everything. We have old buildings, we have new buildings and these things sit on the street and they are mind-blowing and you don't have a choice. You don't have a choice to switch them off or not to look at them. They just glare down at you.
This is what the digital out-of-home companies like about it. The fact that you can't miss them, but I think it's important to stress, as people are listening to this, you actually come out of advertising. You're not somebody who just hates ads. You understand the business.
Amanda Benzecry: Absolutely. It is not about advertising. It is about the medium and what that medium does to a local environment, the pollution, and also mental pollution because when you're driving in London, bloody hell, there's so much stuff going on and then suddenly there are these big screens. So there's environmental pollution, mental pollution burning away, I know they're LED and, but I think there is a place for these screens, like in airports, on airport concourses or train stations where you've got a captive audience and you might want to be entertained. Where they start to come in and add clutter and they're huge and spoil the environment and just add to the mental pollution, I think that is unacceptable, and particularly when, there are many ways to advertise to people now and all those ways that you can reach people, then people still have the choice to not view them or whatever. They can false forward, or they can delete or whatever.
With these, you just don't have the choice, except for, I try not to look at them when I'm going past, and I think that is an arrogant selfish thing to do, especially nowadays when we are so worried about our environment and mental health and things like that.
This caught my attention based on Twitter, and I think you included my Twitter handle in a tweet or something like that, and I'd look at it and went what's that? You have a petition that you're looking to get circulated and t's pretty modest compared to a lot of petitions.
Amanda Benzecry: It is quite interesting, and I am quite frankly slightly disappointed that it doesn't seem to have caught the attention.
Well, now with Sixteen:Nine covering it… (Laughter)
Amanda Benzecry: Well, yeah, exactly.
But I think, to be honest, we're getting a bit of petition fatigue. Interestingly, for the CARPA campaign, when I initiated the campaign against the rugby club. That one has currently got 650 responses, but it's a very old petition now.
Again, it needs to be in the thousands for anybody to really take any notice. But I think disappointingly, I'm not seeing anybody in a position like a green party actually taking it up as a cause and promoting it, and I'm not sure why, other than that, maybe there are just big bucks involved. These screens do make money for councils and there would be a loss of revenue if they weren't allowed to rent the land to the JC Decaux and Clear Channel and stuff like that. So clearly there is a commercial argument that is working in the favor of the LED screens. I think what is also quite interesting is there have been instances where the local council has refused planning and then it goes to the government level, to the planning inspectorate and then they override it. They override the local council. So my personal view is that it needs somebody, a politician, to take it out, but nobody seems to be willing to, and that is disappointing, particularly now when the environment is so important.
SoI can't explain that other than there's money somewhere involved, and that's that stopping it, I would just say interestingly we, Take Down the Ads that did get involved in an application for the screen over a major arterial road, and that was an application by Transport for London who is responsible obviously for the underground system, and their stance on these screens actually is that they believe that a driver can cope with lots of different messages. So the safety aspect is a very difficult platform to campaign on because you don't get their support, but in this case, the road runs along from outer London into central London, there are a number of roundabouts and overpasses, and then the road goes under the roundabout and there are bridges if you like, and they have steadily through the area, erected these LED screens claiming, excuse me, that they're great for disseminating traffic information.
I have never seen traffic information on them, and it came to a point where we've got an intersection locally, which is really the intersection between Putney common, Wimbledon, common, and thank goodness, we were actually able to campaign on an environmental platform and the local council rejected it and they didn't appeal. So that was a small victory. But it was pretty obvious, but there are other areas where it's particularly a conversion from paper to LED. That seems to be just fine. If there's been a poster there already has a poster then you can change it to LED pretty easily actually.
So in the context of what you do, if you get word of a plan out there, is it just yourself, or do you have a circle of people?
Amanda Benzecry: So to be honest, for the most part, it's probably three of us, but don't tell JC Decaux that, but also we have joined a network of ad blocks across the country.
Yeah, people across the country are doing things locally.
Amanda Benzecry: Yeah, but the reality is if somebody is applying for the installation of a LED screen in my area, the local authority isn’t going to take any notice of that because they're in Bristol. But certainly, there's also a number of societies in the area and we keep an eye on planning applications and make sure that we don't miss something. So if something comes up, we're able to challenge it, but the reality is you have to challenge it in a sensible way, grounded in those planning policies.
But I think one thing I have been doing or certainly Take Down the Ads has been doing, which has had some effect because I believe that it was acknowledged that it was having an effect from the feedback I got, again, in relation to the rugby club is that we've been writing to advertisers. And some of them ignore it. Some of them do withdraw their ads and that has an implication on revenue. On environmental grounds, and not saying come down and see this for yourself, but just giving the picture and saying the choice is yours, but we just wanted to advise you that the screens are controversial on an environmental platform, and that has some currency with some advertisers.
Interesting, not the automotive guys. But some of them have said, thank you for your attention to that. We won't use them again, or a couple of them are taking them down immediately, which is nice, so that is an interesting strategy, and I've said to the other guys to just writing to the advertisers because I think the only way you can possibly affect change, if what you're saying is that the industry doesn't really understand how consumers are feeling, then if you write to advertisers and the advertisers keep coming back and saying, hold on, what's going on here? This is controversial, then that's another way round it really, I think.
I gather much of what you're saying is, yes, there are ostensible controls in place at the council level and above that, but unless people such as yourself raise the issue, that the controls are just rubber stamp exercises and things go through.
Amanda Benzecry: I think that is the case because one of the primary directives is, you have to sensitively handle advertising and it should not add clutter into an already busy streetscape. Well, it does. Yeah, so I think to answer your question, yes, definitely. I think it will slip through unless there is a concern and an effort to remind the planning department of their obligations and of the planning policies, which is remarkable really.
You would have thought that they would automatically protect an environment, but I'm seeing countless decisions, not only with LED screens, but buildings and stuff, where they seem to put an interpretation on planning guidelines, which I just can't believe that they've done, and yeah so I think it is really important for locals to make an effort when there is the news and we keep an eye out and look at the planning applications when there is an application for a screen that as many people as possible know about it and can comment.
You would think that because people from around the world come to London because they want to see the old buildings and heaths and everything else, the leafy areas that there would be a business concern from the tourist end that if you start to dot the landscape, particularly the areas that are supposed to be visually attractive, like there are lots of parts of London that, up by the airport and so on that it's not going to be this attractive anyways, but people won't come if it just looks like suburban Cincinnati or something.
Amanda Benzecry: I think to be fair, we haven't arrived at a situation yet like when you're traveling on the motorways in America and stuff like that, it's not as bad as that yet.
So I think one has to think ahead as to the more these things go through. That's the beginning of a slippery slope and we absolutely don't want that to happen. I suppose it's difficult, isn't it? When you don't know what it was like before they were there, you can't really judge how bad it is.
For example, the three screens that started off my campaign. I think people are used to them now and that's the danger as well that our tolerance becomes greater and all, and we just become complacent and then you turn around and suddenly there's another, do you see what I mean? But I don't believe it's bad enough, certainly in those tourist areas for the moment that it would have a detrimental impact on our tourist industry. I think there are many other things that have a detrimental impact on our tourist industry, but I can't honestly say that those screens would be one at the moment.
Somebody did say, there was a petition comment that said, “We don't want to be like America” and some American people got very offended by that. And you do see them all along the motorways and, I think what is quite interesting is that some of the companies are being quite creative with the way they present these screens. So we're seeing some sort of architectural input that sometimes gives them validity. Again, with the rugby club, they decided to make the surroundings look like rugby player posts, which actually made it even worse because you've got these total posts, and just give it permission that somehow they're making some artistic contribution to the environment, which I don't think they are.
Do you get the flip side of the argument from the councils that this adds to our revenue base by doing this. If we don't do this, do we have to raise taxes?
Amanda Benzecry: Well, yeah. We actually live in a borough where that's a whole other argument, we pay too little council tax as a borough, and I don't know, to be honest, I haven’t done the calculations to know how much our council tax would increase if they didn't have any LED screens in the borough. I couldn't begin to comment, and so who knows, it could be a lot, could be a little, but I do think that this particular borough, being a conservative borough, always tries to keep the costs low unnecessarily, and that's an awful thing to say because I'm sure, there are a lot of people on the breadline, but the whole structure of council tax is a whole other podcast.
But on the face of it, yes, I understand how there is an argument that says, we need the revenue and just as the rugby club, their argument was if we don't have the revenue from the screens, we'll go out of business and that's really hard, and so therefore you're putting an environmental argument against a commercial argument and which one should win? My view would always be to find other ways to generate revenue so it's not so damaging to the environment that it has to be the environmental platform. There are always other ways if you weren't able to do it, you'd find another way.
Is light pollution an issue at all?
Amanda Benzecry: It's interesting because I've read somewhere that one of the companies is talking about taking measures to mitigate light pollution, maybe turning them off at night. The rugby club screens go off at night blessedly, which is great. A lot of others burned through and I think so that it would be very helpful if there was a time limit set on these things, it would definitely be because it would calm things down in the evening.
I would argue that but again, you see there's no proven evidence, but I would argue that the wildlife corridor that was opposite the nature reserve, the bat route because in this part of London, we have these green spaces that interconnect and therefore there is evidence that wildlife moves between them and yes, in the winter, there is no winter because the lights are still burning till 11 o'clock. So whether that confuses wildlife, I'm sure it does well, and apparently, the insect population is declining, et cetera. But to be honest, there's nothing, there's no comprehensive and absolutely categorical study that has said yes, over the last 10 years, we've seen the insect population decline by 20% because of LED screens.
Do you see what I mean? So it's really difficult.
So the overarching thrust of all of this in many ways is not purely take down the ads don't want any more advertising, anything else. It's an in-your-face statement, but it's really about to let slow down and really look at what's going on and enforce the controls that are supposedly in place?
Amanda Benzecry: I think so, but also I do think that because of the size of them and things, I think that there are places for them, and I don't believe that the place is in London anyway, because of the size of it, and the small roads. I just don't think they should be in our city.
I think they can be in our airports and in our railways, absolutely. But not in the street with all the traffic and the mayhem and the pedestrians and the cyclists, and I just think they are effectively unnecessary distractions.
Have you ever spoken to a JC Decaux, Global Outdoor, or any of those?
Amanda Benzecry: JC Decaux blocked me actually because obviously, the “I damage the environment, take me down” graphic which was produced here. I absolutely blitzed them with that and I replied to everything and all their clients and this one and that one, and in the end, I'm afraid I was blocked, and I think it’s still not enough, and I think advertisers actually need to take some responsibility as well, but you can understand how everybody's all excited about them and they look fab and the brands up there and all that. I get it.
But I think what you said earlier is that people need to just slow down and think about what it's doing to our streets and people and the distractions and just the business of it all, and I think just to be a little bit more judicious with their choice of locations, I think is what one would hope for in the way moving forward.
So if people listening to this are in Southwest London in particular or elsewhere, and want to be supportive of what you're doing and maybe lend a hand, how would they do that?
Amanda Benzecry: I think they can certainly tweet to me, @takedowntheads. The Facebook page is actually called CARPA. Unfortunately, I wanted to drop that and change it, Take Down the Ads, but Facebook won't let me do that. So that is still called CARPA and I think there's an email address on there. So yeah, I think locally the entity is pretty well known, but also look at the petitions as well, and support the generic petition, which would be great, which is to get the government to consider the proliferation of these ads and, and more public consultation.
All right. It was a pleasure to have some time chatting with you.
Amanda Benzecry: Thank you. I think I chatted at you, didn't I?
That's what interviews are for!
Amanda Benzecry: Oh, that's okay then. Anyway, thank you for inviting me on, and I really appreciate it. It's been very nice. Thank you very much.