Living in an infomercial: Berliners attempt advertising ban
Grassroots collective drafts law seeking to limit commercial advertising in public spaces in Germany’s largest city.
Berlin, Germany – Walking along the largest remaining section of the Berlin Wall today, visitors are greeted with colourful murals preserving its memory.
But further down the stretch of the wall, known as the East Side Gallery, another image looms.
A few hundred away from the Wall is the Mercedes Benz entertainment arena. Boasting a large-scale ad and Mercedes Benz sign, the images have come to brand the cityscape. It’s exactly the type of commercial advertising that has prompted a new campaign to push the issue into the hands of Berlin’s legislators.
The Berlin Werbefrei (meaning Berlin Free From Advertising) campaign group has drafted a law to restrict the amount of outdoor advertising by private companies. It now needs the support of voters in Berlin.
According to spokesperson Steffen Nikolaj Boddin, the campaign isn’t a response to a new problem, rather a new solution to a long-standing issue.
“When we fill public space with advertising we are basically saying private companies can have it for their purposes and to try and manipulate people into buying things. That’s something that we think should not happen,” he tells Al Jazeera.
We want a city that is worth living in. A city where public space has not become a commodity and is not just a projection surface for the advertising campaigns of huge companies.
The campaign wants to see an end to large-scale adverts, with a ban on digital adverts or displays in public spaces, and a ban on all marketing near schools, kindergartens and universities. The law would allow for non-commercial messaging, such as information about events and charitable causes, but these would also be restricted to designated areas and certain heights. Promotion for commercial products would only be allowed in the place of service, for example at the shop or restaurant of the advertiser.
Boddin says the group – a mix of around 30 people including lawyers, designers and advertisers – are eager to protect Berlin’s individuality and authenticity.
“We want a city that is worth living in. A city where public space has not become a commodity and is not just a projection surface for the advertising campaigns of huge companies. We want public space to be a space for everyone where people meet, where people exchange, where they participate and where they don’t feel like they are inside a TV advertisement.“
‘The drop that made the barrel burst’
The idea came last year in a community garden space called the Prinzessinnengarten, in the hip western district of Kreuzberg. Frustrated by the amount of advertising surrounding the eco-friendly garden, Boddin said he counted at least 22 digital and non-digital billboards nearby, the garden group would discuss the issue regularly.
When another new digital advertising campaign appeared near the garden, it was, as the German saying goes, the drop that made the barrel burst.
One of the group, product manager Sarah Mohs, discussed the problem with her lawyer boyfriend Fadi el-Ghazi.
They decided to draft a law and an official petition, a tool offered to citizens in Berlin to put issues on the political agenda.
The petition was officially launched on January 16 and the campaign group have exactly six months from that date to collect at least 20,000 signatures. If they reach this mark, the government of Berlin will have to debate the law and decide either to reject or accept it. If rejected, the campaign group will need to acquire further signatures to push the issue to a referendum next year.
“If there is any government that might look favourably without going all the way to referendum, then it’s the current government – a coalition between the Green, Left and Social Democratic party,” Boddin says.
“And if we collect more signatures beyond the 20,000 mark, the government will see that we have some political weight, and could implement the draft law without going all the way to the referendum. The ideal situation is that we avoid the referendum, but right now that’s wishful thinking,” says Boddin.
There are several examples across the globe of restricting advertising.
Eleven years ago, Sao Paolo, Brazil, implemented the Clean City Law, removing 15,000 billboards and 300,000 oversized shop signs in just a year.
The Indian city of Chennai followed shortly after, banning all new adverts in 2009.
In the US, New York announced last year that the city will no longer allow the advertising of alcohol on buses and trains, while a number of states including Vermont and Maine have bans on advertising in place.
In France, Paris issued regulations to limit the amount of outdoor advertising in the city in 2011, followed by Grenoble in 2014, which became the first European city to issue an outright ban on commercial advertising and began replacing it with trees and community notice boards.
For its part, Berlin’s local government is already working to address some of the issues.
A spokesperson for the Senate Department for Urban Development and Housing told Al Jazeera that the organisation understands the motivation for the campaign.
“In recent decades, public services have been increasingly offset by advertising. This led to a significant increase in advertising media in public space,” the spokesperson said. “To address these concerns, we have put in place a certain, regulated amount of advertising in public spaces in urban areas, especially in shopping areas.
“For example, about 30 percent of the sites of large-scale and particularly striking city light boards have been deleted and we don’t allow advertising of tobacco and alcohol within 100 metres of schools.”
If the law were to be implemented, the local government has estimated that it would lose around 31 million euros ($36m), or around 0.1 percent of the city’s annual budget.
Berlin’s advertising industry, however, expects a loss of around 177 million euros, or 0.14 percent of Berlin’s 130 billion-euro ($152bn) GDP.
Al Jazeera requested comment from Nike and Adidas, two of the biggest advertisers in the city, but both declined.
Berliners to decide
The people who matter at this stage, though, are voters in Berlin, and so far the response has been mixed.
Julia Brodersen, a 28-year-old farmer, backs the initiative.
She said: “I am supporting the campaign because constantly being surrounded by ads is taking energy. The ads plant ideas and stereotypes in your head, with the same end goal – to make you consume. Having no ads will give space for more freedom – freedom of sight and freedom of thought.”
Daniel Sonnentag, a 36-year-old photographer, disagrees.
“I don’t think there is so much advertising in the city that it is destroying the picture of the city. There are many cases where ads actually can make something look more interesting, like scaffolding on construction sites, for example. I don’t want to look at grey, ugly walls.“
With the deadline of mid-July fast approaching, the campaigners have already acquired more than 15,000 signatures and look set to go past the 20,000 mark.
“Even if we are not successful, we have already put the issue onto the agenda, locally and nationally, and people in other cities may follow,” says Boddin.