Source: Leicestershire Live

I think that I shall never see,

A billboard lovely as a tree.

Perhaps, unless the billboards fall,

I’ll never see a tree at all.

                             – Ogden Nash

The Billboard That Grew up to Become a Screen

Source: @LondonBigSynFF

It was initially designed in 1818 by John Nash and was called Regent Circus South. By the mid 1880s it had lost its circular shape and its name, becoming known instead as Piccadilly Circus. It had always been a busy and popular junction drawing in shoppers, theatre-goers and curious out-of-towners. In 1879 Charles Dickens admiringly pronounced: “Piccadilly, the great thoroughfare leading from the Haymarket and Regent-Street westward to Hyde Park-corner, is the nearest approach to the Parisian boulevard of which London can boast.”

Almost 140 years later Piccadilly Circus would again be proclaimed as the best Britain had to offer – this time not by Dickens, he was long dead, and not for its avenues and thoroughfares, they were tired, potholed, and polluting, but for its state-of-the-art outdoor digital billboard. In the span of a century, we moved from delighting in aesthetics and form to being spellbound by technology and pixels.

Illuminated billboards first appeared in Piccadilly Circus in 1908, advertising Perrier. Electronic billboards followed in 1923 and Coca-Cola ran their first billboard advertisement in 1955, advertising there ever since. In 2011 LED displays were introduced, changing the corner of Regent Street and Shaftsbury Avenue into a colour-saturated, brash, and somewhat gaudy global landmark renamed Piccadilly Lights. Then in January 2017, it all went dark.

For nine months the famous corner of Piccadilly was hidden behind scaffolding, thick tarpaulin, and large timber boards. Oversized trucks made daily deliveries; some days cranes could be seen moving heavier items around. The site, resembling a patient on an operating table, lay still and lifeless while others crawled all over it, readying it for resuscitation. Piccadilly Circus hadn’t been unlit for this long since the WWII Blitz blackout.

On Thursday 26th October 2017 site owner Landsec, and site operator Ocean Outdoors, revealed Europe’s largest digital display billboard. It consists of an ultra-HD curved ‘screen’ (the term billboard was retired) hung across the façade of four buildings, wrapping itself around the corner of Regent Street and Shaftsbury Avenue. The screen is almost the size of four tennis courts and can broadcast one giant sized advertisement, or six different ones simultaneously. It is interactive, supports live streaming and can produce a whopping 281 trillion different colours, hues, tints, tones, and shades, from 11 million pixels spaced just 8 millimetres apart. It certainly feels more space shuttle than billboard. 

Ocean’s chief marketing officer, Richard Malton, said:  “The most significant thing that has happened to Piccadilly Lights – not just in the past 50 years, but in its entire history – has to be Landsec’s investment and relaunch of one single screen in October 2017.”

Ocean CEO, Tim Bleakley, shared more on the technology infrastructure supporting the screen, including the use of wi-fi to allow advertisers to update ads in real time based on location intelligence. In an interview with financial outlet City AM, Bleakley stated: “Coca-Cola, for example, can log on at any given moment, see a large group of Spanish tourists and change the copy of the ad from ‘Hello,’ to ‘Buenos Dias.’ There will be car recognition, so, if it’s a car brand advertising, it can serve ads based on the vehicles passing by. For those brands, it’s an exclusive tech club. They’ll be members of a world first.”

It is believed Piccadilly Lights generates approximately £30 million in advertising revenue per year.

Advertising Unhappiness

Andrew Oswald, a Professor of Economics and Behavioural Science at the University of Warwick, is in his late sixties with the build of a long-distance runner. You won’t miss him – he has a habit of wearing colourfully patterned shirts, always immaculately pressed. He speaks in a measured and calm manner, stays on point, and draws you in with his attention to detail. Oswald has held posts at Oxford, the London School of Economics, Princeton, Dartmouth, and Harvard. In academic circles, he is a heavyweight.

Oswald has spent decades researching the economics of happiness and mental health, including the role of advertising and consumption. He and his team carried out what is believed to be the largest study comparing life satisfaction rates and advertising spend. The data, pooled between 1980 and 2011 across twenty-seven European countries and 900,000 participants, determined an inverse relationship between the two – the higher the advertising spend in one year, the less satisfied people were in the years immediately following. The data concluded that advertising generally makes us unhappy.

When quizzed on the effects of advertising Oswald replied, “We know from lots of research that making social comparisons can be harmful to us emotionally, and advertising prompts us to measure ourselves against others.” He continued “If I see an ad for a fancy new car, it makes me think about my ordinary one, which might make me feel bad. If I see this $10,000 watch and then look at my watch, which I probably paid about $150 for, I might think, maybe there’s something wrong with me.

From Small and Folksy to Huge and Intrusive

Source: Marc St. Gil for the EPA Documerica project

Oswald is not alone in his concerns about the impact of advertising.

The United States is a country with a long history of advertising with billboards, of which there are some 370,000 across the country, with an average of 15,000 new sites being added every year. In October 1965 the US government introduced the Highway Beautification Act. It was a project championed by First Lady, Lady Bird Johnson, who reasoned clean streets and orderly highways would make the US a better place to live. The act was primarily concerned with the scenic enhancement of road and interstate systems.

Edward T. McMahon is a graduate from Georgetown Law School, an attorney, community planner, lecturer, and author. He is also the former president of Scenic America, a movement concerned about America’s visual character, particularly its roadsides.

McMahon is a bear of a man, barrel chested and solid. His shoulders hunch – just a little. He has a proud white handlebar moustache, a friendly welcoming face and he peppers his conversation with humour. He is an interesting person to be around.   

The law [Highway Beautification Act] was so riddled with loopholes and enforcement, so lax that in recent years, billboard companies have put up thousands of new, bigger, more obtrusive billboards.”

He continues, “In a relatively short time, outdoor advertising has gone from small and folksy to huge and intrusive. We’ve now entered the era of digital billboards – giant outdoor TV screens wasting energy while degrading the landscape and distracting drivers.”

I wonder if McMahon has been to Piccadilly Circus.

Uninvited and in Your Head

Huge and intrusive’ isn’t just limited to the physical space occupied by billboards or outdoor digital screens.

Billboards, sometimes the size of the frontage of a modest house, are visual pollution strewn amongst communities. Smaller digital screens lay siege to bus shelters and pedestrian areas, uninvited they forcibly occupy our field of vision. But it gets worse; out-door advertising has no off button, or page to turn, no scroll bar to allow you to retreat from the propaganda-styled messaging. The advertising is forced on you with or without your consent.   

The danger with always-on advertising is it subtly turns citizens into consumers: customer, fan, shopper. Communities are seen purely as demographic clusters to be extracted from, often leading to overspending and overconsumption. 

Allies in a Movement

Adfree Cities is a network with a vision for happier and healthier cities. They joined the dots and understand the triggering effect consumerism plays within the planetary breakdown currently occurring. The network operates across the spectrum of change – from lobbying national and local government for better regulation, to working with communities to keep public spaces ad free, to showcasing alternatives and sharing research on the negative impacts of outdoor advertising on both the planet and its communities.

Other movements are taking a more subversive approach. Adblock Bristol, which began in April 2017 as a volunteer group, opposes billboards and outdoor advertising, to protect Bristol’s unique identity and values. It promotes community over consumer, and on occasion takes direct action.

In August 2023 campaigners painted “No ads, trees pls” across four East Street billboards managed by Build Hollywood. Build Hollywood claims: “We love cities. Not so much the corporate, controlled, concrete and glass metropolis but our social and diverse urban spaces – lively places where unexpected encounters await just around the next corner.

Within days Build Hollywood had replaced Adblock’s graffiti with more corporate advertising, including for Netflix. No trees have been planted on East Street.

Source: Bristol 24/7

One hundred and fifty years ago Parisians offered us their boulevards and avenues as examples of sophisticated urban design. Today, Piccadilly Lights, Europe’s largest advertising display screen, serves as an example of how all-encompassing outdoor advertising has become. When unveiling their oversized digital screen in 2017, Landsec excitedly told journalists of discretely placed surveillance cameras that could detect the make, model, and colour of passing cars, while algorithms could make sense of visual cues, such as hair length, height, and the assumed gender of passing pedestrians – all this allowed for customised ads.

Landsec later added that none of the camera data was being collected or stored. It felt like an awkward postscript. 

That was then and six years is a long time in the billboard business. Today, Five Tier CEO Frank O’Brien runs an operating platform that allows his clients to implement integrated marketing campaigns. His choice of language is designed to simultaneously impress and overpower, like so much of marketing.  

What O’Brien is alluding to is the hidden-from-view technology that is monitoring you. Every time you pass a digital billboard or kiosk, or an electronic bus shelter panel, your consumer credentials are being interrogated, profiled and updated. 

Once in range of one of his digital billboards O’Brien’s automated system is pulling data from your mobile phone, which is then combined with personal information drawn from a broad set of real time databases to create your digital twin. Displays are then manipulated to provide the real you with uninvited purchasing cues. The result: we buy things we don’t need with money we don’t have. 

If left unchallenged this growing network of invisible data traps along with the synthetic manipulation of our visual environment will completely rob us of agency, and hollow us out to be no more than cogs in a giant engine of consumption. 

Perhaps it’s time for Piccadilly Circus to go dark again.