Why the creeping sell-off of public space for private ads is so wrong

By Kurt Iveson, first published in the Sydney Morning Herald on October 9 2018.

Premier Gladys Berejiklian’s intervention to insist the Sydney Opera House allow blatant Racing NSW advertising on its sails is objectionable for many reasons.

Most worryingly, it signals a new intensification of the ongoing privatisation of our public spaces through advertising. The surfaces of our city are being remade as advertising space before our very eyes.

We have slowly let advertising creep further and further into our public spaces. These spaces are attractive to advertisers because our media habits are increasingly fragmented. While some of the advertising dollars that have vacated “old” media like newspapers have gone online, some have also been diverted to the oldest media of them all – “outdoor media”.

And as funding for public spaces and public infrastructure has been squeezed, cash-strapped urban authorities have started to find those advertising dollars increasingly attractive as a means to top-up their income.

Advertising is now not just on roadside billboards. It’s also on bus stops, on newsstands, on street signs, on houses, on buses, on trains, on trams, on electricity poles, on train station platforms, on the back of toilet doors, on escalators, in lifts, stencilled onto footpaths – the list is ever expanding.

While this has been happening, we have also witnessed the parallel growth of privately sponsored, branded and ticketed events that colonise some of our major public spaces – especially during the summer months. We live in increasingly branded cities.

There will be a range of views on whether all this advertising is ugly or attractive. But the infiltration of advertising into the urban public realm is not just an aesthetic issue. It’s a matter of public significance because it signals a slow shift towards the idea that public spaces must rely on private, corporate sponsorship to survive.

This is no way to support an equitable city, where everyone has access to infrastructure, regardless of whether their local park or street or bus stop happens to provide a lucrative ad space. Because not all spaces are equally attractive to advertisers, a city in which the public realm is funded by advertising will entrench and exacerbate spatial inequality.

Those of us who have been critical of the infiltration of advertising into the urban public realm have warned that unless we draw a line somewhere, its spread will continue to places that ought to be “off-limits”. Never in my most cranky moments would I have thought to suggest that one day the sails of the Opera House might even end up covered in advertising. Until last Friday afternoon, that would have seemed too crazy.

But this is Sydney in 2018. Where we have government of the corporation, for the corporation.

It’s imperative that we figure out how to recapture our public realm for the public good before it’s too late. We must not only defend the sails of the Opera House against this corporate incursion. We must start insisting that our public realm is publicly funded for the public good, and demanding that our politicians place adequate limits on the amount of space set aside for advertising in our urban environments.

Kurt Iveson is an associate professor of urban geography in the School of Geosciences at the University of Sydney.

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