We Don’t Question It: Fighting for an Ad-Free City

What would the world look like without advertising? If we just planted trees, or put up artwork instead? Bootcamp grad Leigh seeks to answer that question in her ‘Adblock’ campaigning.

Leigh graduated from Bootcamp last year, and works with the Adblock Bristol campaign. She also works as a cleaner, on a recycling lorry and organises for climate justice with Reclaim the Power. Before Adblock Bristol, she got involved in the anti-fracking campaign in Yorkshire, which was ultimately successful in preventing the area from being pursued by oil and gas companies. She decided to move to Bristol after her friends went to prison for an anti-fracking protest.

We spoke to Leigh following the success of Adblock Bristol’s Fighting for Ad-free Cities conference: the UK’s first anti-advertising conference. Find out more about her work with Adblock and more below.

We’re so used to advertising; we don’t question it. We don’t ask: why does that huge multinational, with their economic advantage, have the right to buy the space on my street, and the space in my head?

I’m working on a campaign with Adblock Bristol, which tries to remove advertising infrastructure from our city. If a company wants to put up a new billboard, we try to stop them. The goal is for Bristol completely free from outdoor corporate advertising.

People often say ‘yeah, I don’t like adverts, but they don’t affect me’. Sadly, that is not true. Large amounts of money are spent to find the most effective method to manipulate our feelings. That’s why the mental health consequences of advertising are so awful. We create space to talk about these issues and think of alternatives: to ask, what would it be like if we took down all the billboards and planted trees, or flowers, or put up artwork instead?

Environmentalism and Anti-Advertisement Campaigns

If people were only buying things they needed, there wouldn’t be a need for advertising, would there? It is fundamental for this industry to push our desire to consume. There is an environmental cost associated with that, whether it is the carbon footprint of shipping, or the pollution created from producing stuff. A double-sided digital bus-stop screen uses more electricity than 4 of the average British household consumption of electricity.

In a low-income, predominantly BME community, kids are a stone-throw away from one of the new billboards that have been put up aimed at the passing traffic by the motorway. A proposed advert for that location includes one promoting a brand new £73,000 Lexus. The message of these adverts and the outlandish luxuries they idealise is a world away from the reality of life for a lot of people in these neighbourhoods, yet they perpetuate the ‘car-is-king’ crisis. These kids are paying the price in their playtime.

Adblock Tactics

My day-to-day work is very planning-based. If a company wants to put up a new billboard or advertising infrastructure, they have to get planning permission just like anyone else. That’s an opportunity to say no. In Bristol, thankfully, we’ve been super successful at getting adverts removed at this stage. The city has a tiny amount of advertising compared to what we would have if the campaign wasn’t going on. One challenge is that people don’t see what is going on behind the scenes…people aren’t seeing that the adverts are missing. 

Many councils are also declaring climate emergencies. As highlighted in the section above, advertising is completely incompatible with responsible action on climate. So that offers another alternative: if councils are writing a climate emergency plan, it seems obvious that that should include no new advertising. 

Fighting for Ad-free Cities: A National Conference

In October, Adblock Bristol organised the UK’s first anti-advertising conference: Fighting for Ad-free Cities – a national conference. We were thrilled about the amount of people who came and the energy in the room. We even had campaigners over from France who have had huge successes

Our diversity is a winning advantage. People can tackle this issue from lots of different areas and perspectives, which was reflected in the attendees and workshops at the national conference. There were workshops about subvertising, gender and body image, air pollution and monitoring body failures. We have young artists, town planners, city conservationists, and even pensioners involved. There are also a lot of concerned parents involved. If we don’t consent to corporate advertising, children certainly don’t and they have a lot less say on what they choose to take in from their environment.

Get Involved

At the moment we are working to get new groups off the ground, with good progress in Cardiff, Leeds, Birmingham, and Brighton. It would be good to know if there is anyone interested in getting involved.

There is substantial evidence about how harmful advertising is to our mental health and wellbeing. If there are Bootcamp graduates or other people reading this who are involved in mental health, we’d love to collaborate and put on an event together. 

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