Annette John-Hall: Is there space for a billboard on Penn's hat?

The suggestion by Philadelphia Councilman Darrell Clarke to sell outdoor advertisements on city buildings made the silly part of me think of William Penn atop City Hall draped in an ad for Boyds.

Could be effective. Because if anybody is in need of a 21st-century makeover, it's the venerable Billy.

I'm just kidding. Defacing a historic statue with an ad is clearly not what Clarke has in mind. But in all seriousness, it's exactly what members of Scenic Philadelphia - which has for years worked to defend public spaces from illegal outdoor advertising - fears.

And, after watching This Space Available, the thought-provoking documentary about the proliferation of outdoor advertising that Scenic Philadelphia screened at the Free Library on Wednesday, I couldn't help but wonder whether Clarke's proposal could lead us down a road littered with unsightly advertising with little to show for it.

"Visual clutter" is how filmmaker Marc Gobé described the gigantic billboards and wall wraps that bombard us along interstates, major corridors, and the downtowns of major cities every day.

In many cases, such ads camouflage the richness of our architecture and block out the magnificence of our vistas.

"Philadelphia has such a powerful brand with our architecture," says Mary Tracy, executive director of Scenic Philadelphia. "When you turn over your city to commercial interests, you're turning it into somebody else's brand."

Which, she argues, would not draw people to Philadelphia, but would turn them away.

Appropriate ads

Hold on, says Clarke. Nobody is talking about usurping the city's brand. Anybody who wants to do business with the city must enter into a contract, which means the city can control it. Ads would have to be appropriate and tasteful, the Council president says.

In other words, no wall wraps on Billy Penn. But a banner in the courtyard of City Hall? Clarke doesn't see why not.

Clarke guesses outdoor advertising could generate as much as $10 million for cash-strapped city coffers.

"This annual process where we dig into people's pockets to collect taxes has to stop," Clarke says, citing a recent Pew study that shows 56 percent of Philadelphians who responded supported outdoor advertising. "There's a way to do this without being intrusive, but there's no willingness from the other side to have a conversation."

'Form of excess'

Oddly enough, Gobé used to be an international branding expert. He worked on campaigns for Coca-Cola and Victoria's Secret.

But one day, the author of Emotional Branding realized "that I had come to a point where I felt the advertising business was getting into a form of excess. It was turning people away from the messages it intended."

For This Space Available, Gobé and his daughter Gwenaelle took off from their native France to chronicle how outdoor ads have compromised quality of life in cities all over the world.

In Moscow, for instance, an enormous, futuristic BMW ad sits within striking distance of the Kremlin, destroying the aesthetic of the historic structure. In Venice, the first thing tourists see as they board the water bus in the Grand Canal is a banner billboard, placed there to raise money for renovation of the city's crumbling buildings.

The thinking seems to be: If something isn't profitable, it isn't valuable - even our most meaningful treasures.

Still, I'd like to think Clarke sees things differently. After all, the councilman worked with Scenic Philadelphia to get rid of 1,000 alcohol and tobacco ads and billboards in North Philly during the Street administration.

He's sensitive enough to know that putting a Nike ad on a rec center would be perfectly appropriate. But a malt liquor ad? Not so much.

Clarke seems convinced that selling outdoor ads in Philadelphia is an idea whose time has come.

Problem is, advertising is a competitive and insidious beast; it tends to sneak up on you.

It's not so far-fetched to imagine our world-class architecture draped in UGGs wall wraps; our vibrant vistas disrupted by digital billboards for Californication.

It's already happening in Los Angeles. And if we aren't good stewards of our public space, it could very well happen here.


Contact Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@ phillynews.com, or follow @Annettejh on Twitter.