Ill-advised adoption of digital out-of-home marketing technology, for ad revenue purposes, serves no public interest
Going around the city, one is bound to notice the propping up of LED ‘streamer’ billboards, broadcasting publicity images and advertisements across the major roads of Gulberg, Model Town, and Cantonment/DHA. In some areas, particularly on MM Alam Road and alongside the Liberty Market, these billboards have been attached to poles of street lights flashing brightly lit images directly into the field of vision of oncoming commuters.
No doubt this tertiary spectacle of capitalism is bound to suggest the ‘glamourous’ side of the city, but the fact that public space is being utilised in the interest of private enterprise must be questioned.
This is especially important owing to the fact that these lights cause a disruption of traffic by providing dangerous, rapidly flickering distractions for drivers whose eyes should constantly be on the road. Instead, glamourous models advertising the latest lawn prints, soft drinks, mobile plans etc are competing for the fragmented attention of commuters, creating a significant hazard while setting a dangerous precedent.
The light emitted by the powerful diodes of the flashing and flickering billboards is significantly brighter than the street lights, almost nullifying their effect. Describing the electronic signage as "visual eyesores, and a waste of electricity," Adnan Khan, a resident of Lahore, says: "It’s not just a matter of adding to pollution, but they can distract anyone on the road, [and] even make it difficult to see things for a few crucial seconds."
These seconds are indeed crucial, for as anyone who has read a driving manual would know, an accident can occur within fractions of a second during mundane lapses of attention. The fact that advertisers are now broadcasting motion imagery on streets replete with bustling traffic indicates that they are competing with the road and traffic conventions for the few seconds of drivers’ and passengers’ attention and awareness in order to implant the desirability of their products.
No doubt, everything should have its proper place in a city, and all enterprises should have the right to promote themselves. Publicity images and billboards must also have their designated space. Unfortunately, it appears as though advertisements have now fallen out of place, and have begun to prop up in the most innocuous places.
This partly has to do with the fact that with the boom in electronic media, internet, and social media, consumers’ attention spans have become increasingly fragmented. As these media spaces become increasingly saturated with ads, marketing firms endeavour back to the frontier of public space in order to technologically capture potential consumers’ eyeballs with high-frequency streaming content.
In marketing parlance, the concept is known as ‘digital out of home’ (DOOH) advertising, which is closely related to digital and mobile advertising. It is to bring these forms off the web and onto public space so that people get the messages even when they are offline or in transit.
As a proprietor of this digital signage technology in Lahore claimed in a recent newspaper article, "An average of 15,000 to 36,000 cars commute using the MM Alam Rd. A DOOH advertising platform in the area could reach up to 850,000 people and have over 4.5 million impacts."
The same firm claims that while the adoption of digital marketing technology has been slow in Lahore, which is "stuck in the last century," this new platform would bring about a technological revolution in the city.
Where the purported goal of LED streamers is to "to capture the interest and emotions of today’s more socially conscious and increasingly mobile consumer," they are inadvertently also compromising the safety and well-being of these same mobile commuters and pedestrians. There is no point being propelled into the 21st century with flashy marketing technology when public goods such as footpaths, pedestrian walkways, and streetlights are in a derelict state. Modernisation and development have much more to do with public space and public access to places in a safe and secure way, and much less with glamour. Distracting, sensational images only jeopardise ordinary people at the behest of commercial advertisers and large corporations who want to bombard them with high-frequency publicity images.
The audacity of this cutting-edge publicity imagery is especially glaring when one considers how the regular street lights are often not functional while the green belts they are implanted in lie in a neglected state. Atif Ali, a traffic warden operating in the Gulberg area, considers this "very dangerous, [as] it can pose a significant hazard."
He compares this to the dangers of texting while driving. "This is a very dangerous trend, even more than we can imagine."
Noting that these things aren’t under the jurisdiction of the traffic authorities, where the Parks and Horticultural Authority (PHA) administers the green belts lining the roads, Ali suggests that all it takes is a petition from a single citizen to have a reconsideration made in favour of roads and safety.
The light poles recently came under the purview of the PHA as lucrative advertisement slots on green belts of the city. In order to generate revenue from auctioning out this space to private marketing firms through open bidding, the authority awarded licenses to operate LED streamers on particular heavy-traffic throughways. Coming with an annual fee, these licenses issued to different firms are renewable on a yearly basis.
While the annual fee was not immediately disclosed by PHA officials, when TNS contacted them, a representative of one of the marketing companies operating LED streamers quoted the price of a 15-second ad repeating over a period of one week on MM Alam Rd as high as Rs0.9 million. Given that there are several ad campaigns running over 15-second intervals, this amounts to a very significant monetary amount which marketing firms are capitalising on.
At what public expense is commercial and corporate capitalism reshaping our city’s infrastructure and rearranging its public space in spectacular form? SP City Traffic Police, Asif Siddique, suggests that these lit-up moving images present a dangerous distraction for oncoming traffic: "I am not even in favour of there being billboards and advertisements on the road. A driver’s eyes should always be on the road. Even when they are not so brightly lit, the ad definitely demands attention."
The solution, according to him, is to promote road safety while avoiding this haphazard sprawling private commercial infrastructure. "There should be a general policy that all these [roads] should have no other signage than road signs."
Siddique claims that when these plans were being drawn up by the PHA, the DCO advised the director general of the authority that the move to commercialise the space via LED steamers would endanger road safety, but the latter didn’t pay heed to this warning or try to obtain a no objection certificate.
Discussing the PHA’s planning behind the endeavour, Shahzad Tariq, a director at PHA, says that in the year 2008, all billboards in Lahore city came under strict governmental oversight. Meanwhile, areas under the Cantonment Board and DHA permitted large-scale LED streamers in certain areas. In order to cash in on similar revenue ventures, the PHA proposed to install smaller LED streaming billboards on the street lights that came under their purview.
Tariq suggests that this is part of the PHA’s objectives of "beautification" of the city through "street lights and signs ki roshni."
Similarly, Aamir Ibrahim, also a director at PHA, defends the enterprise by suggesting that it is modernising the city by bringing in the latest technology (of LED screens).
Neither of them sees the element of distracting visuals on throughways as a traffic hazard.
Rather than getting distracted by the spectacular wonderland of commercialisation, we must be wary about such a twisted concept of modernisation, development, progress, and beautification. This initiative does not contribute anything to public interest, while facilitating corporate capital and ad-revenue streams at public expense. The hallmark of truly progressive cities is the provision of public facilities in public spaces and guaranteeing safety and security. The purview of advertisement in highly developed cities around the world is strictly regulated and publicity images can only be displayed in properly designated places.
Most developed cities around the world are now transitioning towards becoming ‘green cities’ where plants and foliage are brought out in public spaces and making pedestrian walkways. Meanwhile, our designated authorities for beautification of the city have gone and dug up the green belts to install generators for these heavy, power-consuming billboards.