A City Without Billboards

In January 2007, Sao Paolo, Brazil, did something that would send chills down the spine of most ad agencies. In an effort to rid the city of what the mayor called “visual pollution,” Sao Paolo enacted a Clean City law that banned all billboards and most other large outdoor advertising.

Known as one of the world’s worst billboard jungles, Sao Paolo was rife with illegal billboards and signs. Advertisers had bought up virtually all available street and wall space in the city to hang their gigantic marketing messages. To earn money, some poor residents even sold the front of their homes or space in their gardens to post ad signs. Unable to determine which were legal and which not, the city banned them all.

Since the law went into effect more than 15,000 billboards, 1,600 oversized signs and 1,300 metal ad panels have come down. Strict regulations mandated smaller storefront signage and limited them to hang only above the store entrance and not extend into the street. Even pamphleteering in public spaces was made illegal. Those who didn’t comply faced hefty fines.

The city behind the billboards proved a revelation. Removal of billboards from building facades exposed sweatshops where exploited workers worked and lived in squalid conditions. It also revealed badly maintained buildings with peeling paint, broken windows, ugly pipes and shoddy wiring. On the plus side, it made the public aware of Sao Paolo’s elegant though rundown Art Deco and Art Nouveau architecture. The city offered property tax exemptions to encourage renovation and many old building are being restored to their original splendor.

Brazilian advertisers, who bitterly fought to block the law and predicted dire consequences on the regional economy, have quickly adapted. Newspaper and print media advertising surged. Digital advertising in buses, metro lines, airports and bars has proliferated. The city too is reinstating strictly regulated outdoor advertising at bus stops, newsstands, outdoor street clocks and public bathrooms. Even ad agencies are admitting that the billboard ban made them more inventive.

One resident commented about seeing something she hadn’t noticed before in Sao Paolo – the sky.

Photos by Tony de Marco.