Thursday, July 14, 2011

Not the briefs, but the billboards

We should credit those sportsmen in skimpy underwear that came out in all their almost-naked glory on a giant billboard. If not for their loaded briefs that caused an uproar in some sectors and offended the sensibilities of some people, the issue of billboards and the danger and ugliness they bring would not have come up again.

This is another good season for bashing billboards.

Most of the complaints that led to the tearing down of the offensive billboard focused on the models showing too much skin and flaunting their bulges. But to debate on just one particular billboard’s moral or redeeming value would be to debate endlessly till another killer typhoon sends it crashing down.
There are those who argue that there are bigger problems that need to be addressed by the mayor who ordered that particular billboard to be taken down, or that malice is in the eye of the beholder, etc. I thought the mayor who said on TV that he covered his nieces’ eyes whenever they drove by the said billboard argued poorly and missed the bigger problem of billboards, that is, billboards taken collectively. Don’t focus on one page, read the whole book.
Towering billboards are dangerous to life and limb especially during typhoons which this country has plenty of. This has been the experience of some Metro Manilans whose properties and lives were crushed by falling billboard frames.

Billboards have made the landscape very ugly and obliterated whatever is left of the blue sky. They endanger the lives of motorists who get distracted by the large images. Billboards are there to precisely call attention. They don’t say they are for passengers only and not for drivers.

I tested myself a few times while driving and indeed, I found myself glancing at some of them from the corner of my eye. Once I even got down to take a photo of a billboard that showed an adolescent in a reclining position with her legs spread apart and serving up her pubis.

I remember a billboard ad for an alcoholic drink that caused a furor some years ago because it asked, “Nakatikim ka na ba ng kinse anyos?” (Have you tasted a 15-year-old?) The double entendre was quite obvious. I suspected the creators of that ad expected complaints but went ahead anyway because the furor would mean product recall. That’s why some ads are meant to be offensive. Some appear stupid. But their creators are clever.

The content of most billboards are rather tame, some are done in poor taste, others well done and enticing. But taken collectively, they are an eyesore and dangerous. They contribute to visual and environmental pollution. Are billboards with the comely face of a saint or with some sublime messages the next best thing? No. They do not solve the problem.

Go through Edsa and the expressways and you’d be convinced that there are not enough laws or ordinances in most places to regulate their sizes, height, location, distance from one another and yes, content. Safety and beauty seem to be no one’s concern. Foreign visitors and tourists can only gasp at all that ugliness and wonder why we allow the disfigurement of our urban and rural landscape.

A smart aleck might argue some billboards cover unsightly areas. Come on. The unsightly areas are on the ground. The billboards go as high as the sky, they dominate the skyline. And pray tell, what happens to the acres of non-biodegradable tarpaulin used for the outdoor ads?

Now come the electronic billboards that flash and dazzle with messages meant to be read by motorists. In my childhood the Manila cityscape sparkled with countless neon lights, most of them at street level and lit up only at night. Unlike the billboards, the flicker of neon signs did not seem to pose any danger. That was when there were places we could call “downtown,” that is, before we all got “mall-ed.” I now remember Petula Clarke’s hit song “Downtown”: “Linger on the sidewalk where the neon signs are pretty, how can you lose?… Downtown, where everything’s waiting for you. ”

Outdoor advertising – tarps, electronic – is now the rage but the government does not seem to care about its regulation. Only when lives were lost and property damaged did some local officials take some action. Now advertisers roll up the tarps when strong typhoons are expected. That saves them money, too. But the tarps are spread out again as soon as the sun shines. They may be out of tsunamis’ reach but what about strong earthquakes and the ipo-ipo that come without warning?

Not a few times these structures have become a refuge, a jump off point for suicidals. They’re easy to scale by derelicts and woebegone Spiderman wannabes who wish to tell the world of their heartbreak or call out to lost loves. How many police dramas have unfolded on these deadly structures?

I believe in advertising but not in the use of billboards and hangings that litter the landscape. Sure, advertising adds to the vibrancy of the economy, and if well done, informs and educates consumers about product choices, it increases sales volume and helps lower prices, etc. As an industry it also gives jobs to a lot of people. But it could go overboard in content and method and become exploitative, offensive, destructive and dangerous.

The billboard overkill is obvious. Now every outdoor ad agency and its clients want a piece of that wall, that roadside, that post, that skyline, even the blue above.

What happened to Sen. Miriam Defensor-Santiago’s Anti-Billboard Act that seeks “to regulate the placement of billboard signs,” and another one “prohibiting officials from claiming credit through signage announcing a public works project”?

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