September 26th, 2008

French Protesters Wage War on Billboards

By Max Colchester
The Wall Street Journal

Small Band of Activists Hopes Graffiti Campaign Will Prompt Government to Ban Large Outdoor Ads

Paris—On Friday, Alex Baret plans to board a train to central Paris, pull out a can of spray paint and deface a billboard, as he has done every last Friday of the month for more than two years. The slogan he prefers to leave scrawled on his targets: Harcèlement Publicitaire, or Harassment by Advertising.

The 34-year-old musician, who lives in the city’s suburbs, hopes such acts of vandalism will encourage the French government to ban large billboards, which he says “force messages onto unsuspecting passersby and ruin the landscape.” Just a handful of protesters join Mr. Baret in his monthly graffiti blitzes, but scores of sympathizers typically gather to watch. And he has rallied several French philosophers and intellectuals to his cause.

His campaign is part of France’s love-hate relationship with advertising. Though much of the French public doesn’t like outdoor ads—58%, according to a 2007 poll—France is home to some of the biggest advertising firms in the world, including Publicis and JCDecaux.

Hostility toward advertising is deeply rooted in France’s history, says Publicis Chief Executive Maurice Levy. “We have a culture” that doesn’t “like commerce....This goes back to the Middle Ages,” he says. Ads are a “scapegoat” for people looking to reject certain forms of capitalism, he adds.

Because of their prominence, billboards are obvious targets for French anticapitalist sentiment, says Philippe Legendre, the acting director of the Institute of Research and Advertising Studies in France.

But distaste for outdoor ads isn’t uniquely French; small groups of protesters are active in other countries, too. In Belgium, Ad Hiders obscures billboards by covering them with plastic sheets. In New York, the Anti-Advertising Agency, which has about 20 members, frequently paints over outdoor poster ads with black paint, focusing on ads hung illegally around city construction sites. It also works to replace outdoor ads with art.

The protests here come at a time when outdoor advertising has already lost some of its luster with French marketers. Though €1.1 billion ($1.6 billion), or 10% of France’s annual ad revenues, come from outdoor ads, compared with just 3.9% in the U.S., their number has declined by 50% over the past 20 years, partly because more billboards have been placed inside subway stations and airports. The business also is suffering from France’s decision last year to allow retailers to advertise on national television.

Protesters have damaged the image of outdoor advertising, says Etienne Reignoux, head of marketing at Clear Channel France, a unit of U.S. outdoor-advertising firm Clear Channel Outdoor Holdings. “I can’t argue with them, except that if [billboards] allow companies to finance services, such as bus stops, this is giving something back,” he says. The protests, he adds, are too small to hurt outdoor-ad companies’ bottom lines.

Mr. Baret says the seeds for his campaign were sewn in the spring of 1997, when he was riding the Paris subway and he looked up at an ad. “I suddenly thought: ‘I am in a prison,’ “ he says. “I saw the slogan, the lies, and it disgusted me.”

Eight years later, Mr. Baret, who plays the double bass, helped form Les Deboulonneurs—“The Debunkers”—a group with 100 to 300 active members that lobbies to limit the size of individual ads to roughly 27.5 inches high by 20 inches wide.

French billboards tend to be smaller and less well-lit than American ones. French law says outdoor ads can be no bigger than about 170 square feet, except in special circumstances, and shouldn’t be placed in the countryside. But each municipality can decide limits on ad size.

Bernard Stiegler, director of the department of cultural development at Paris’s Centre Pompidou, recently offered to act as a witness for Mr. Baret in a case the state brought against him for destruction of private property. Mr. Stiegler says Mr. Baret’s group is “responsible” and is holding advertisers to account for their excesses. “They are protecting the ad industry from itself,” he says. “They will be heroes one day.”

The movement now includes other groups, such as the Anti-Advertising Resistance. In 2003, hundreds of demonstrators fanned out in towns across France and defaced thousands of ads. Companies including Publicis unit Métrobus filed lawsuits against 62 people. Mr. Baret was one of those charged, and was ordered to pay €2,500 in compensation. But he says Les Deboulonneurs “don’t care” if they get arrested, and even warns the police of his actions beforehand. Some protest groups, however, stick to legal activities.

The industry is remaining stoic. “There is no point rolling around on the floor crying,” says Stephané Dottelonde, president of the French Union for Outdoor Advertising. “You have to respect that these groups exist.”

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