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Should billboard advertising be banned?


I live in São Paulo (the city mentioned in the article) and I always find it amusing how you can tell exactly where São Paulo ends and the neighboring city (Guarulhos) begins just by the billboards.

Here’s São Paulo’s welcome sign coming from Guarulhos. There are lot of billboards before it, but exactly none after.


“Advertisement is the rich asking for more money. They disfigure their towns in order to decorate their houses.”

— G.K. Chesterton

The correct amount of advertising in a society is not zero - we all like finding out about things which will actually help us - but it is not unbounded either. The advertising machine acts according to its incentives, and will not rest until every spare surface, every quiet moment, every gap between thoughts is up for auction. It must therefore be restrained so that other uses of space can flourish.


> “Advertisement is the rich asking for more money. They disfigure their towns in order to decorate their houses.”

> — G.K. Chesterton

> The correct amount of advertising in a society is not zero - we all like finding out about things which will actually help us - but it is not unbounded either. The advertising machine acts according to its incentives, and will not rest until every spare surface, every quiet moment, every gap between thoughts is up for auction. It must therefore be restrained so that other uses of space can flourish.

Wow. That was perhaps the most eloquent thing I've ever read on the hacker news. Thanks for posting it!


I don't think advertising is the right way to raise awareness about products and services - it is biased, untrustworthy and obtrusive. (Non-shill) reviews, word of mouth and other grassroots methods are both more effective and less obtrusive, the problem is if you've got a half baked product and you're burning money you need to ram your junk down people's throats RIGHT NOW or you'll go out of business, and thus advertising.


Pleased and surprised to see a Chesterton quote here!


I was thinking about flagging it, but I don't know why they posted it, so I won't.


I stole the quote and tried to pass if off as my own work to a pawn broker I know, but he said he'd already been offered the same quote by another author and since he wasn't sure of the origin of the quote he suggested I put it back till its provenance could be established: wouldn't you know, with my luck I had chosen Chesterton's fence.


Whoever downvoted you didn’t get the joke.


So you're sitting on the fence ...


Why would you flag it?


> we all like finding out about things which will actually help us

That's pretty easy to achieve with a pull model rather than push though, especially with modern technical advances Chesterton couldn't have dreamed of (search and ubiquitous internet). Under the backdrop of restraining advertising except insofar as it offers a legitimate discovery service, given how easy it is to operate such a service, is it still reasonable to populate websites, billboards, and magazines with intrusions into unrelated aspects of life?


In my opinion it definitely is zero. Word of mouth is more than enough to learn of good new things.


That is a form of advertising.


> is a form of advertising

In modern parlance, word of mouth is a form of marketing. Advertising is “an openly sponsored, non-personal message to promote or sell a product, service or idea” [1]. (Also, word of mouth has strong incumbency bias. The printing press was revolutionary for a reason.)



I guess but not initiated by sales and marketing people trying to flog stuff I don't need, but actual satisfied customers who I can trust because they're my friends.


What's the consequence if advertising is 0? An inefficient market? What's wrong with word of mouth?


Not just word of mouth - you can have review sites, things like consumer reports, store shelves, etc...


How would you make sure that those things don't become gamified and advertisement-riddled? Specifically review sites and similar.




"Advertisement is the lubricant of Capitalism" -- Me.


Santa Barbara County in California bans billboards, and Santa Barbara city has even stricter sign laws.

It’s a relief to be free from the visual pollution billboards create and there are no downsides unless you own a billboard.

In a more urban setting, I don’t hate billboards. The absence of billboards is a definite increase in quality of life.


Around here, the Reservations are not covered by state billboard laws. There's one billboard on the Res that is adjacent to and faces I5 and is composed of light bulbs that are blinding to drivers.


I very, very rarely take conscious notice of billboards. If every one within a 100 miles of me were to disappear without a trace over night I'm honestly not sure I'd notice.


Do you ever do anything outside at night? The digital billboards are not something you'd miss. They're too bright and attention grabbing to be anything but obnoxious.


Admittedly I do not, I'm very much a homebody and tend to go to bed shortly after the sun sets. I bet those would be much more noticeable.


There’s also downsides if you own land that a billboard could be put on; your land will be less valuable.

Possibly balanced out by general property value increases due to there being no billboards, but I kind of doubt it.


By the same token, any zoning is a restraint against capturing the full value of land.

It is possible the stringent enforcement gets absurd ( see ).

On balance I am in favor of banning most outdoor advertising.


That’s why I’m so much happier there!


It’s pretty weird that we allow advertising to attempt to distract you while you’re doing the most dangerous thing you generally do daily: driving.


Sometimes they contain too much information to read as you're driving by, other times they are simple but annoying like this one:

But what I find the worst these days are ultra-bright large LED screens. At night they are blindingly bright. One in particular in my area installed at a shopping plaza, is so bright I need to look away when walking by. Its "ad light" floods the whole area.


Ironically there are even billboards about how other distractions like texting while driving kills.


There is literally a billboard on the highway in British Columbia that is a pair of skidmarks descending into a valley with large font that says "KEEP YOUR EYES ON THE ROAD". During the night this sign is lit like a christmas tree, very bright.

I could never get over how difficult it was to ignore that stupid billboard every time I crossed it.


At a gut level, I would love for outdoor advertising to be banned in my city. I resent the constant intrusion into my mind when I encounter them on the street.

That said, I do recognize that from the perspective of advertisers and consenting property owners having the (assumed) right to do trade however they wish, this may not be a fair or reasonable policy to enact. Truth be told, I haven't thought about this very much.

But the thing that I'm MOST interested in is what will be the secondary consequences of banning outdoor advertising? If advertisers cannot use billboards or posters, how will the space change and where will their behavior be compensated for elsewhere? Are there any unwanted secondary side-effects that might occur do to this prohibition? Like online advertising intensifying, or paid sponsorships for online content creators, or perhaps something completely different?


A city could set limits for the quantity, size, and prominence (eg no digital displays, illumination must be lower than X nits) in a reasonably fair and neutral way, so they're not banned altogether but the excesses are trimmed.


Restricting huge intrusive ads seems very close to the building code and zoning laws which cities seem to have no problem going completely overboard with.


I suppose instead of banning billboards specifically, one could ban "unwanted and unwarranted intrusions".


They should be banned, and not because people are automatons, but because advertisements are invariably objectively distracting and increasingly garish as firms attempt to outcompete one another for attention. It's really just a question of what kind of society we want to live in - my own view is that people should have the option not to be bombarded by hawkers, whether it's homeless people, Mormons, or corporate shills, while they move about public spaces.


I would support some kind of Right To Not Be Accosted. I don’t know what that would look like exactly but people who want to sell or market something to me ought to have to obtain my consent first. It doesn’t seem right that you can go out and try to mind your business and be constantly under assault by things and people looking to take your attention. Like pollution laws, we should have a right to live life without all that in our environment.


Should this apply to protests and petitions?


It should.

People ought to have a right to go, again, into public spaces and mind their business. They should be free to go about without being accosted or harangued or, for example, inconvenienced because people have chained themselves to the doors of commuter trains or have decided to lay in the middle of the highway.

Kind of the old 'your rights end where they interfere with my rights' kind of thing - going about my normal business in a public space is never likely to interfere with anybody, at least not in a purposeful way, whereas protests are by definition intended to interfere with my right to enjoy public spaces. They are, quite literally, intended to 'shock' normal people into changing their viewpoints or behaviour. Where I live (Melbourne, Australia) protests in the CBD often disturb private citizens in their homes.


Sure. I’m not a big fan of protests, in particular ones that intrude and disrupt me trying to simply go about my life. Petitions are just variations on sales pitches, like religious proselytizing, which I also would not consent to if I had the choice.


And not just billboards. Did I ask to have ads put on my gas pump? No, I did not. (I didn't ask for Maria Menudos to be put on it either. Why, every time that I pump gas, do I have to watch her on the gas pump?)

I didn't ask for ad-blaring TVs to be in airport waiting areas.

In fact, both of those are worse than billboards. Billboards mostly don't move and talk.


I went to Cuba and there was no advertising allowed on the roads. It was really refreshing, and it made our excursions feel a lot more engaging. The government did have some propaganda billboards on the roads, but it was ridiculous stuff like Uncle Sam getting punched in the face. I found those pretty entertaining…


> Meanwhile, a spokeswoman for another trade organisation, the Advertising Association, says that "all advertising plays a crucial role in brand competition, drives product innovation, and fuels economic growth".

You know what actually drives product innovation? Not being able to lean on advertising to drive sales, so you're actually forced to improve your product and get the benefit of positive word of mouth instead.


Sounds like the position of a developer who has never had to advertise. Building things doesn't automatically make people gravitate toward them. Believe it or not, you have to go places and promote things.

Yes, talking about or inserting something into conversation is promoting. It's advertising. And guess what--almost none of your users or buyers are going to say a word about your product.

People need to stop believing this stuff and just accept the dirty fact that if you want something to get used, you HAVE to advertise. You HAVE to promote.

Edit: You know what word of mouth is? Worthless for people who don't have eyeballs on a product.

Go read around HN and tell me about a product you just heard about being praised that you don't already know about today that is not already the de facto solution or product in a space.

You know what word of mouth is? Word of mouth is a signal you have already won. It is absolutely nothing for growth.


Spoken like a marketer / salesperson. I am indeed a developer and run a successful, bootstrapped software business. I agree that you need to initially get the word out that your product exists at all. However, this can be so targeted and the scope so small that I doubt most people would put it in the same category as the advertising practices that many find objectionable.

Once you've got some interest bootstrapped, you CAN in fact rely on unprompted word of mouth for growth. My users and buyers spread the word about my product simply because they find it useful. Many bring it to their new employer when they switch jobs.

So no, I disagree with the blanket position that you have to advertise -- especially in the intrusive fashion that's the subject of the article -- to get people to use your product. (Though I don't dispute that doing so can be a good shortcut.)

But all that is irrelevant to my claim above: my position is simply that a dearth of advertising options is what drives product innovation, by necessity. And hence, limiting advertising is likely to actually be good for consumers.


Many products require massive investment to get to the point of being able to sell a product. Waiting around for word of mouth means your debt will overwhelm the business.

Bootstrapping only works if you haven't taken on much debt to finance the development and manufacturing of the product. Software can be developed with very little debt (which is what I did).


> You know what word of mouth is? Worthless for people who don't have eyeballs on a product.

As a customer, I'm tired of hearing this excuse. I get wowed by free, open-source software dozens of times a week. You want me to put eyes on your product? Wow me! I'm tired of "enterprise-grade fart apps" and "B2C photo storage" garbage getting touted as life-changing or impressive technology. If you want to compete, do something impressive. If you want people to look fondly upon your product, consider giving back to the community instead of paying to become their adversary.


And guess who funds most development for the free open source software you use?


> You know what word of mouth is? [...] It is absolutely nothing for growth.

When I joined the company some years ago, we were the 5th largest in our sector. We since grew to 2nd largest using almost entirely word of mouth for sales. We didn't have any dedicated sales people, and did hardly any advertising.

Instead, users would call friends in the industry and tell them to get our software. If they switched jobs they'd persuade their new boss to get our software.

Since reaching #2 spot we got some sales and marketing people, and we're now at the top.

So while I'll disagree that word of mouth can't be used for growth, I've seen first hand how good sales and marketing can put you on a steeper curve.


> Go read around HN and tell me about a product you just heard about being praised that you don't already know about today that is not already the de facto solution or product in a space.

Easy. This morning in the "Ask HN: So you moved off Heroku, where did you go?" thread I saw multiple users mentioning a open source project I have never heard of but seemed very close to what i was looking for. I have it now running since 12 hours and I already recommended a friend to check it out.

I reckon about 70% of things I use are from recommendations of people (but usually not from the internet). From what command-line shell I use to what music I listen to.


> You know what word of mouth is? [...] It is absolutely nothing for growth.

I don't recall seeing TikTok billboards or banner ads.

I've never seen a Tesla ad.

Did Facebook advertise? Instagram?

GMail throttled demand with limited invitations.

Until this week you had to apply to get a Dall-E login. Heard of it?

Rolls-Royce and Tupperware do not advertise.

I'm not saying advertising isn't important for products. But it's easy to find enormously-grown counterexamples to your blanket claim.


TikTok advertised on Facebook.

Tesla used to run billboards in LA and SF and paid influencers to shill their cars. They still market quite heavily today though not through billboards (AI Day is a marketing event.)

GMails invitation system was it's marketing, back in the day when people were excited about Google products.

Rolls Royce sponsors athletes, which is considered marketing. They also bring cars to auto shows and to various events targeted to the luxury crowd.

Tupperware's original business model was literally 100% about marketing. Most people would call it a multi level marketing scheme today.


Well there is now a massive group of people that never sees online advertising anymore. Due to adblockers and piholes. Thanks Raymond Hill <3

For me the only advertising I see is on billboards because I never watch live TV either (and haven't for years). And many products are way too niche to advertise that way.

This group will get ever larger because it's just a great thing to live in an advertising-free world. If your business can't cope with it I would suggest making that a priority to adjust to :)


Food for thought: The user you're responding to is the founder of Reviewable. I use his product and found it through word of mouth. It is not the de facto solution in the space.


Now compare the revenues and profits of his company to the largest advertisers in the US…


I’ve never heard of it.


> Building things doesn't automatically make people gravitate toward them.

No, but the two barber-shops in towns spending $X each on net-even advertising is a net-negative for me, because the only thing I get out of it is a higher bill when I cut my hair.

Some advertisement creates new markets. Some is a negative-sum game. None of it can be assumed to be honest, because of the obvious profit motive involved.


> None of it can be assumed to be honest

Who do you assume to be honest? The politician wanting your vote? The prospective employee telling you about his job skills? The public schools telling you they do a great job? Dr. Fauci? The customer who tells you "the check is in the mail"?


Word of mouth is increasingly the only source I trust for product recommendations. Once advertisers figure this out I imagine they'll start sponsoring my acquaintances to lie to me about their products in person and I'll have to narrow the field even further.



If my friend referred a dentist to me just for $50 without mentioning that they were only doing it for the incentive, we wouldn't be friends much longer.


I think this is why influencers on social media are a thing


If your product is so damn good

Why don't you want to tell more people about it - wouldn't that help them? (and you?)

Seriously asking - like I get it if you only want to make $x and call it a day but can you help me understand why you wouldn't want to help more people with your superior offer?


That's an easy one: your product is good only for some people, who happen to have the problem you're solving. You could tell everyone about it, but you'd reach a lot of people for whom wasting time hearing about your product is a net negative, and it's entirely possible that the overall value to other people's lives of advertising in that way would be negative as well. Of course you could try more targeted advertising to mitigate the negative externalities, but that carries its own costs in terms of invasion of privacy, etc.

So yes, it's certainly possible that advertising raises the overall well-being of the recipients, but it's by no means a given.


Who are you to decide that though?

If you don't try to reach them - your inferior competitors will. Then you and your potential users are both worse off


There could be per-unit CapEx costs that mean that you actually can't scale up to serve traffic very much faster than organic viral growth allows.

Imagine a small cake shop running a Superbowl ad. That'd be dumb, right? Even if they had the money to run the ad, they can't fulfill the number of orders that ad would generate.


What you're saying is just not true. It's also not what capex means.

Most companies do not and cannot "go viral"

that is a fantasy for most offers. Unfortunately it's just not that easy

There's a reason that millions of Americans work in some form of sales. At big, medium, and small companies of all types. It's not an accident or a mistake actually. Any offer worth enough profit to be worth a human pitching it will get pitched - and so too will many offers that aren't worth pitching for that matter




Exactly. Advertising is an arms race. Coca Cola doesn't spend billions on ads because nobody had heard of Coke. They do it to suppress the more innovative competition.


It's to remind people to buy a coke, it feeds the craving. Same thing for McDonalds and Starbucks advertising.


Right, yes, I believe we're saying the same thing. If Coca Cola doesn't remind people to buy their product, they might buy some other product.


And to make people feel good about their purchase.

BMW doesn't really need to advertise as their new cars are only affordable for a small subset of the population. They advertise to re-enforce to their customers they made a great decision parting with their money.


Coca Cola did innovate - "New Coke". It was a disaster. People like the old Coke formula much better.

Some things really don't need innovation.


And interesting point I learned from a documentary recently, that I rarely see mentioned: New Coke failed mainly in the American South, among people who considered Coke to be a wholesome and traditional part of their lifestyle — kind of like sweet tea. But it failed so hard there, with people there getting so angry, that the media capitalized on that failure, running constant articles about it, giving an impression that New Coke was just failing in general.

New Coke was actually decently successful in the rest of the world; and especially in younger, more urban markets — i.e. the markets Pepsi is more popular in. New Coke did exactly what it was designed to do: steal market share from Pepsi.

Coke's mistake was never really in launching New Coke. Their mistake was in removing the "old" Coke at the same time. If New Coke was positioned differently — not as a replacement for Coke, but just as a "kind" of Coke (like Coke Zero is a "kind of" Coke), they would have cleaned up.


...which is an argument against advertisement.


It took a few days for me to put my finger on it, but lack of advertising was something that stood out to me when I visited Cuba almost a decade ago. Your visual environment has space to breathe. Although, another difference in Cuba was the presence of regime propaganda in some of that visual space.

Growing up in Chicago's suburbs, the highways are awash in billboards. I never noticed it until living elsewhere. But in the town I grew up in, public ads were much less common.

It's interesting the ways in which the commercial exploitation of the visual environment plays out differently in different societies. But I'm a fan of far less advertising in public spaces, where you can't really consent. And I think it's interesting that the ways in which the internet attention economy lays bare the commodification of attention might bring more awareness of that mm dynamic in contexts where it has been underexamined.


This article seems to want this to look like a unified movement, but it seems more like a bunch of small groups in different areas who aren't working together, and may not even agree with each other if you get them in a room together. The issue-specific people ("no car ads!", "no gambling ads!") may not go to bat for someone else's issue, and may look at the "no ads whatsoever" people as extremists who distract from their specific cause.

I guess my point is this seems like a bunch of weakly-related data points, rather than a strong signal of a movement. Too bad, since I'd love to see drastically fewer ads in public spaces.


I want fewer signs in general. Fewer billboards, fewer road signs, fewer placards posted by control-freak authoritarians.

I drove in Scandinavia a few years ago. They have a lot fewer road signs. Speed limits are by default and drivers are supposed to know them: 50kph in town. 80kph on rural roads. 100kph on motorways. Only if limits are different are there signs.

The signs they do have are mostly iconic, so other than street names, you don't have to read words. That is also more pleasing to the eye somehow.


I was reading an article just today about a guy who got his catalytic converter stolen while parking at the airport. He told the reporter that there should at least be a sign warning of the possibility. I was thinking, "No, not more pointless signs!" They are an easy way to appear to do something about a problem.


> These ads are in the public space without any consultation about what is shown on them.

> This would also apply to the sides of buses, and on the London Underground and other rail and metro systems

This is a good point. The other arguments were much less persuasive.