What do we do with giant billboards?
Ogden Nash parodied Joyce Kilmer’s famous poem “Trees” with this limerick:
“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.”
Nash hit the nail on the head, so to speak. When you pass through Edsa in the heart of Metro Manila, do you see any tree at all? You don’t. What you see is a jungle of billboards advertising all sorts of products, including men’s briefs and women’s underwear. In fact, even the façade of some of the buildings are hidden from view by giant billboards.
The reason is, those billboards mean money, plenty of it, to the outdoor advertising companies that own them. And because clients pay by the square foot, the billboards get bigger and bigger as the ad companies get greedier and greedier.
This make the billboards top-heavy, putting them at risk of toppling over during strong winds. But despite the fact that the Philippines is visited by more than a dozen typhoons every year, the billboards keep getting bigger. It seems there is a contest among the billboard companies and the advertisers on who has the biggest billboard.
One or two of those billboards indeed fell during a typhoon, killing a man on the street below, and crushed a car. After that accident, there was a clamor to reduce the number of billboards in Metro Manila, and the MMDA tried to dismantle some of them. But as in any “ningas-cogon” campaign, the effort died down when the media lost interest in the issue.
The clamor flared up again recently when a very, very big billboard (four giant billboards merged into one) in Guadalupe showed male models clad only in briefs, as if teasing the priests and seminarians living in the nearby seminary.
Had not Valenzuela Mayor Sherwin Gatchalian and his two little nieces passed by Guadalupe in a car, that billboard would still be there.
When the girls saw the giant images of the brief-clad models, they covered their faces, Gatchalian said. So he called Mayor Benhur Abalos of Mandaluyong and complained about the billboard. Abalos immediately called the advertiser and told it to take down the billboard, which it promptly did.
It turned out that there is no government agency regulating the billboard industry, hence the runaway increase of billboards in the Philippines. There are the Advertising Board of the Philippines (Adboard) and Ad Standard Council that are supposed to regulate the industry in Metro Manila, but only on Edsa it seems.
During last Monday’s Kapihan sa Manila at the Diamond Hotel, we learned that the Adboard and Ad Council have no real power. They are composed of the billboard advertising companies. In other words, they regulate themselves. And when an ad agency steps out of bounds—like the briefs billboards—all they can do is “request” that the offending billboard be taken down.
“What if the agency does not grant your request?” I asked. “What can you do?”
“Nothing,” replied Adboard’s Jones Campos, Ad Council’s Rudolph Jularbal, and Ed Acosta of EDA Billboard Services, who were the guests at the Kapihan last Monday, along with Mayor Gatchalian and lawyer Romulo Macalintal, representing the general public.
What about the structures, the steel frames holding up the canvas tarpaulins with the advertising images? Are they safe? Do they follow the building code? I asked.
“They do,” replied the three advertising executives.
So how come at least one of them fell and killed a pedestrian?
“It was an accident, force majeure,” they answered.
The center of the current controversy is the contents, the male models clad only in briefs. What did you do about them?
The ad executives replied that when the ad concept was first presented to them, they found it objectionable and rejected it. The advertiser changed it and submitted it again. Still on the borderline of the Adboard’s Code of Ethics, but they gave it a “with caution” classification and approved it for display.
“Not good enough. Still objectionable,” said Gatchalian. “Why did it have to show the models in briefs?”
“You have to show the product.”
“Michael Jordan advertised a brand of briefs without showing the underwear itself,” Macalintal pointed out. “The ad showed him holding only the box.”
“What if you are advertising condoms, do you have to show the condom itself?” a journalist asked.
Advertising manuals will tell you that to sell your product, you must first attract attention to your advertisement. One of the ways to attract attention is to show as much of the male or female body as you can get away with, because the naked human body is taboo in polite society. When you show plenty of skin in a very big billboard, as that Volcanoes billboard did, you do attract attention. But too much. It did not only attract attention, it shocked many Edsa passersby.
Actually, there were several other billboards showing models in underwear, but these were female models in bikinis and bras. Why were there no complaints against them?
Probably because the public has become used to female models baring skin. Probably because the female body is more pleasing to look at than the male one.
“Only gays enjoy looking at unclad male bodies,” quipped a journalist.
“Not true,” interjected another. “Females also do. Look at the females shrieking in delight during the annual Oblation Run at the University of the Philippines.”
But we are straying from the crux of the matter. What do we do with the proliferation of giant billboards in the country, especially on Edsa? What do we do with the oversized billboards which pose a danger to life and limb?