I think that I shall never see
“A poem as lovely as a tree
“Indeed unless the billboards fall,
“I think I’ll never see a tree at all.”
This piece of doggerel was written by a Joyce Kilmer wannabe in the United States, but he might as well have been expressing the thoughts of Metro Manila as well as provincial residents who are being overwhelmed by the billboard blight.
The issue of proliferating, humongous billboards was recently brought again to the public consciousness by billboards featuring some members of the Philippine rugby team wearing nothing but briefs that emphasized their “bulges.” Mayor Benhur Abalos of Mandaluyong ordered the billboards taken down on the grounds that they did not have the necessary permit and could be morally offensive to children of tender age.
The numerous and huge advertising billboards have contributed to the visual pollution and “uglification” of the metropolis. On the 23-kilometer Edsa alone, roughly 2,000 gigantic billboards are standing, which means that on average, there is about one billboard for every 11 meters.
The monster billboards shut off the commuters’ view of the wonderful blue sky and fluffy white clouds. Some of the billboards, because of their exciting, sensual and sometimes overtly sexual content, can be distracting and dangerous to drivers. They can also provide a convenient jump-off point for would-be suicides.
Crashing billboards during the onslaught of typhoons have killed people. In September 2006, strong winds brought by typhoon “Milenyo” toppled a huge billboard near Estrella Street and Edsa in Makati, killing a man, injuring several others and crushing two vehicles. In October 2009 typhoon “Pepeng” skirted Metro Manila but still its powerful winds toppled several billboards and trees.
Last year typhoon “Basyang” toppled billboards, but it was a good thing it hit Metro Manila at night and did not cause any death or injury. This year, advertising companies, having learned their lesson, scrambled to take down their billboards before typhoon “Bebeng” struck.
Because of the furor caused by the billboard controversy, the Metro Manila Development Authority has lately been on overdrive. Last month it filed criminal complaints against owners of buildings and outdoor advertising firms that have installed huge billboards without getting any permit, in violation of the National Building Code. It is demolishing billboards on Edsa that are found violating the code and have no permits from local government units.
For their part, advertisers and advertising organizations are urging the government to go slow on its anti-commercial billboard campaign. They say that billboards help generate consumer sales and thus serve the manufacturing and retail industries, and ultimately create thousands of jobs. They also contend that accidents on roads and highways are mostly caused by reckless driving, and not by the supposed distraction that billboards provide. They say that billboards are built for commuters and nondrivers.
Billboard supporters say that they are a time-honored mode of communication that imparts useful information to millions. They also point out that they constitute protected commercial speech. Fr. Joaquin Bernas, an Inquirer columnist and constitutional expert, referring particularly to the controversial “briefs” billboards, opined that they were not obscene. But he pointed out that a recent court decision mentioned “relative obscenity.” Obscenity could be relative to the age level of the viewers, and advertising billboards can be seen by everybody, from toddlers to senior citizens.
Given the state of our economy, the total dismantling and outlawing of advertising billboards may be too drastic a measure. A more prudent course of action might be to enact an Advertising Billboard Code that would consolidate all the rules pertaining to billboards. And before the government is forced to lay down the law on the content on billboards, the Outdoor Advertising Association of the Philippines should define what is allowable and what is not.
Also, rules should be laid down on such things as the size and spacing of outdoor advertising, so that the cities and the highways would be relieved of visual pollution and the billboard blight.