Outdoor Poster Boys or Visual Polluters?


Few who visit or live in France can ignore JCDecaux, the name that is synonymous with outdoors or, in the view of some, grossly polluting it.

Bus shelters are a popular captive audience hoarding for advertisers

For from the moment one drives or flies into France – home-base of JCDecaux, these days a powerful multinational business — it becomes very evident who owns every bus stop, virtually every strategic road crossing, a vast estate of hoardings, every self-service city bike station and coin-operated public toilet, and the largest regiments in the ubiquitous army of 12m2 billboards (known as 4x3s) that mass on roadsides and entrances to towns and villages across the country.

Now in response to rising public discontent, Ecology minister Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet has launched a consultation asking people what changes they want made to these forests of advertising hoardings. According to a report in Le Figaro, she published an amended draft of a new decree on display advertising under the Law of 12 July 2010. She said limiting ugly billboards was a central part of the le Grenelle Environnement environmental plan and added: “These new rules will finally put a stop to the slow degradation of our urban and suburban landscapes, improving the environment and the image of our towns”.

Not so claims Paysages de France, among the most vociferous nationwide opponents of the hoarding invasion.

Tony Smith, a restaurant owner and long-time resident in Montauban, is the SW France regional organiser and national administrator of the campaigning group. He told French-News-Online: “Paysages de France has been working for many years to limit the visual pollution engendered by the lax and seldom upheld environment laws concerning billboards and signs. In the case of the proposed law our primary demand concerning the scandal of outside advertising is to abolish the ‘grands formats’ (the infamous 4x3m). Due to massive lobbying by the UPE-L’Union de la Publicité Extérieure (the French bill boarders union funded by JCDecaux, the No1 billboard company worldwide), this is not going to happen. The law proposes to reduce the maximum size from 16m2 to 12m2 when in reality the 16m2 format is never used and it is the 12m2 format that is the problem all over France. Paysages de France strongly denounces this government back down.

“Also, due to pressures from UPE, it is proposed in the new law that small towns and villages administratively dependent on an agglomeration of more than 100 000 inhabitants, (sometimes at 50 km distance from these larger towns!) will continue to be allowed to host these giant hoardings when elsewhere all communes under a 10 000 population level are protected from their presence. Paysages de France denounces this connivance with an industry that continues to contravene the law on a grand scale. (We estimate that one third of all hoardings and signage are installed illegally and our association spends much time fighting the indifference of the state and the majority of France’s Maires by seeking to have the law respected).

(Editorial note This figure is firmly rejected by Stéphane Dottelonde, president of the UPE – which represents 90% of the business. He said: “Every panel is subject to prior declaration at Town Hall and the prefecture. What these groups are protesting about are the small signs which don’t require authorisation or signs located on private land. But over these UPE has no control.”)

“Furthermore”, adds Tony Smith, “the fact that the surrounds of airports and stations situated outside towns will be opened up to the bill boarders under the new law, is likely to result in the implantation of thousands more 4x3m hoardings.

A giant supermarket sign being dismantled following action by Paysages de France (Photo: Tony Smith)

“There are several small points proposed such as a ban on the plethora of small signs that mar the town entrances that are welcome however, as usual, the giant outside advertising multinational companies have nothing to fear.

“The le Grenelle Environnement has once again shown that when faced with the choice between proposing real remedies to the various forms of pollution that the country faces and limiting the activities of the polluters, the government always comes down on the side of the polluters in order to satisfy a dogma that puts economic growth before everything else .”

The UPE billboarders association which claims to represent around 40 operators in France, naturally enough rebuts all such allegations. Its president Stéphane Dottelonde, told Le Figaro in a TV broadcast that there had been “a significant cutback by association members of the number of outdoor advertising supports put up in urban areas, as much as 30% in Paris alone”.

However as any visitor to Paris can attest this hardly seems credible. The takeover of Paris, considered by the French to be the cultural capital of Europe and certainly a centre of extensive artistic sensibility, is particularly invasive.

It was in Paris that Charles Garnier, the man who built the capital’s magnificent l’Opéra de Paris noted in 1871: “Art is everywhere, in everything: in the street and in the museums, and I do not believe it correct that four or five manufacturers assume they can abrogate to themselves the right to besmudge a city that is home to a million people, with their presumptuous advertising signs!” Presciently this was nearly a century before the arrival of JCDecaux, which first developed its street furniture in Lyons.

“L’art est partout, il est dans tout : dans la rue comme dans le musée, et je dénie le droit que s’arrogent quatre ou cinq industriels de maculer avec leurs enseignes outrecuidantes la ville qui abrite un millions d’habitants !” Charles Garnier, 1871

As its corporate website proudly recalls: In 1964, Jean-Claude Decaux invented the concept of Street Furniture, combining public services with advertising. Lyon was the first French city (with a population of over 100,000) to benefit from the installation of free bus shelters. The first Citylight information panels (MUPI) were introduced in the 1970s while in 1980, the first automatic toilets were installed in Paris and by end December 2004, JCDecaux boasted 2,292 such toilets worldwide. Today JCDecaux is the world’s No 1 Street Furniture firm (with 763,000 advertising panels in 54 countries).

The advertising invasion — a visual pollutant and despoiling eyesore to its opponents — is not a recent phenomenon, but its impact has increased, insidiously, over the near 50 years since Jean-Claude Decaux and Jean-Pierre Decaux hit on an idea that was to transform the outdoors forever and turn their company into a firm favourite on the Paris Bourse with a reported turnover of €2,106.6m in 2007 alone.

The billboard impact famously prompted French academician Michel Serres’ clarion call in 1997 in Le Monde de l’Education, one that still reverberates. In an angry outburst he railed against the: “Tidal wave of screaming posters […] letters, shapes and colours of frightening aggression, the atrocious visual battering of the public, the abominations that defile city outskirts and urge the public to stir itself and in wrath, destroy and burn all the panels and shame the perpetrators (of the billboard invasion)”.

Strong stuff, but a reflection perhaps of a growing sense that JCDecaux and its UPE associates representing all billboard advertisement agencies in France but in reality a “unity is strength” style lobby group, are guilty of overkill in outdoors advertising in France.

Indeed the mayor of Forcalquier in Provence, reacting to his electorate’s concerns, peremptorily banned all outdoor advertising in the village back in July 2009 and says everyone is happier as a result.

Christophe Castaner the (PS-Socialist) mayor of Forcalquier, (Alpes-de-Haute-Provence) pop 4,724, introduced the hoardings bar helped by the fact that the village has been included in the Luberon Regional Park, an area under national park protection where restrictions on hoardings are meant to be absolute.

Calling street furniture advertising “visual pollution” M.Castaner told La Provence newspaper at the time: “the town is the capital of flavours and fragrances, so it would be contradictory to retain this source of visual pollution” . He said Clear Channel (the world’s 2nd biggest outdoor advertising company) had previously had the concession on outdoor advertising in Forcalquier. We ended their contract and removed all advertising under the powers of 1979 national park legislation.” To his knowledge, he said, no other French town had taken such a radical decision on advertising. He said he had acted after he noticed an increasing number of anti-advertising messages and slogans being painted on or plastered over billboards in the town. “I watched and then started to question the residents who seemed to be against advertising, so I took steps to implement their wishes.”

Is a saturation point on billboards being reached (Montage LePost)

In Paris itself according to a Le Figaro report (see video clip below), Bertrand Delanoë, the mayor, has called for a 30% reduction in outdoor advertising under new provisions of the Local Regulation of Advertising code (RLP – règlement local de publicité).

His arguments have been countered by the UPE’s Stéphane Dottelonde: “Sometimes we hear that ad space is proliferating but it is in fact totally the opposite. There has been a very sharp decrease in advertising space in Paris in recent years, some 30-40%. Advertising has always been part of the Parisian landscape just look at the 1920s and 1930s. Moreover, there is a much higher amount of advertising in other major European cities”.

Video of interview with the UPE’s Stéphane Dottelonde reacting to a call by the Mayor of Paris for a 30% drop in the number of hoardings in the capital.

You can comment on government proposals to tighten up on billboards here.

Story: Ken Pottinger

Footnote: In the UK the regulator the OFT-Office of Fair Trading has announced an investigation into Clear Channel and JCDecaux, claiming the outdoor advertising groups could have ‘potentially restrictive’ contracts in place with local authorities.

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5 Responses to Outdoor Poster Boys or Visual Polluters?

  1. Tony Smith February 27, 2011 at 3:16 pm

    “What these groups are protesting about are the small signs which don’t require authorisation or signs located on private land.” (Billboarders union UPE)

    This is typical of the dis – information that the UPE spreads:the main offender that Paysages de France and other groups have in their sights is the 12m² (or the slightly smaller but equally intrusive 8m²) billboard erected on public or privately owned sites at every French town entrance.

    These enormous billboard posters project into a public space and occupy that space. Public space has in this way been privatised.

    We are working to claim back the French town entrances from the outside advertising firms, the hypermarché chains and the ‘Micks’ and the ‘Foire Fouilles’ and we are urging maires to rehabilitate the entrances to their towns by creating local bye laws (Règlement Local de Publicité)to drastically limit the hoardings.

    We also urge maires to plant trees, create cycle lanes and to deny further building permits for the construction of the ghastly corrugated iron cube style buildings that pass themselves off as shops in these places.

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