In 2007, the world's fourth-largest metropolis and Brazil's most important city, São Paulo, became the first city outside of the communist world to put into effect a radical, near-complete ban on outdoor advertising. Known on one hand for being the country's slick commercial capital and on the other for its extreme gang violence and crushing poverty, São Paulo's "Lei Cidade Limpa" or Clean City Law was an unexpected success, owing largely to the singular determination of the city's conservative mayor, Gilberto Kassab.
As the driving force behind the measure, mayor Kassab quelled the rebellion from the advertising industry with the help of key allies amongst the city's elite. On many occasions, Kassab made the point that he has nothing against advertising in and of itself, but rather with its excess. He explained,
"The Clean City Law came from a necessity to combat pollution … pollution of water, sound, air, and the visual. We decided that we should start combating pollution with the most conspicuous sector – visual pollution."
Since then, billboards, outdoor video screens and ads on buses have been eliminated at breakneck speed. Even pamphleteering in public spaces has been made illegal, and strict new regulations have drastically reduced the allowable size of storefront signage. Nearly $8 million in fines were issued to cleanse São Paulo of the blight on its landscape.
One sore loser in the battle was Clear Channel Communications. Having recently entered the Brazilian market, the corporation was purchasing a Brazilian subsidiary as well as the rights to a large share of the city's billboard market. Weeks before the ban took effect, Clear Channel launched a counter-campaign in support of outdoor ads, with desperate slogans that failed to resonate with the masses: "There's a new movie on all the billboards – what billboards? Outdoor media is culture."
Although legal challenges from businesses have left a handful of billboards standing, the city, now stripped of its 15,000 billboards, resembles a battlefield strewn with blank marquees, partially torn-down frames and hastily painted-over storefront facades. While it's unclear whether this cleanup can be replicated in other cities around the world, it has so far been a success in São Paulo: surveys indicate that the measure is extremely popular with the city's residents, with more than 70 percent approval.
Though materialism and consumerism, along with gang violence will continue to pollute the city of São Paulo, these human dramas may at least begin to unfold against a more pleasant visual backdrop.
Bob Garfield: I've seen photos of the city, and it's amazing to see this sprawling metropolis completely devoid of signage, completely devoid of logos and bright lights and so forth. What did São Paulo look like up until the ban took place?
Vinicius Galvao: São Paulo's a very vertical city. That makes it very frenetic. You couldn't even realize the architecture of the old buildings, because all the buildings, all the houses were just covered with billboards and logos and propaganda. And there was no criteria.
And now it's amazing. They uncovered a lot of problems the city had that we never realized. For example, there are some favelas, which are the shantytowns. I wrote a big story in my newspaper today that in a lot of parts of the city we never realized there was a big shantytown. People were shocked because they never saw that before, just because there were a lot of billboards covering the area.
BG: No writer could have [laughing] come up with a more vivid metaphor. What else has been discovered as the scales have fallen off of the city's eyes?
VG: São Paulo's just like New York. It's a very international city. We have the Japanese neighborhood, we have the Korean neighborhood, we have the Italian neighborhood and in the Korean neighborhood, they have a lot of small manufacturers, these Korean businessmen. They hire illegal labor from Bolivian immigrants.
And there was a lot of billboards in front of these manufacturers' shops.And when they uncovered, we could see through the window a lot of Bolivian people like sleeping and working at the same place. They earn money, just enough for food. So it's a lot of social problem that was uncovered where the city was shocked at this news.
BG: I want to ask you about the cultural life of the city, because, like them or not, billboards and logos and bright lights create some of the vibrancy that a city has to offer. Isn't it weird walking through the streets with all of those images just absent?
VG: No. It's weird, because you get lost, so you don't have any references any more. That's what I realized as a citizen. My reference was a big Panasonic billboard. But now my reference is art deco building that was covered through this Panasonic. So you start getting new references in the city. The city's got now new language, a new identity.
BG: Well, cleaning up the city's all well and good, but how do businesses announce to the public that they're open for business?
VG: That was the first response the shop owners found for this law, because the law bans billboards and also even the windows should be clean. Big banks, like Citibank, and big stores, like Dolce & Gabbana, they started painting themselves with very strong colors, like yellow, red, deep blue, and creating like visual patterns to associate the brand to that pattern or to that color.
For example, Citibank's color is blue. They're painting the building in very strong blue so people can see that from far away and they can make an association with that deep blue and Citibank.
BG: Now, the city has said, having undertaken this effort, it will eventually create zones where some outdoor advertising will be permitted. Do you expect São Paulo eventually to just revert to its previous clutter?
VG: Not to revert to previous clutter, but I think like very specific zones, I think they're going to isolate the electronic billboards in those areas, in the financial center. I don't think they should put those in residential areas as we had before.
BG: Now, the advertising industry is obviously not happy about this. They're complaining that they're deprived of free speech and that it's costing them jobs and revenue. But is there anyone else in São Paulo who's unhappy about this? Tell me about the public at large. What's their view?
VG: It's amazing, because people on the streets are strongly supporting that. The owner of the buildings, even if they have to renovate a building, they're strongly supporting that. It's a massive campaign to improve the city. The advertisers, they complain, but they're agreeing with the ban. What they say is that we should have created criteria for that to organize the chaos.