Outdoor advertising is still struggling to convince Cape Town authorities that its medium is not all evil.
Five years ago, the city of Sao Paolo in Brazil was almost stripped bare of all out of home advertising overnight. The implementation of Lei Cidada Limpa or the Clean City law was said to be based on a “…necessity to combat pollution…pollution of water, sound, air and the visual”. Indeed ‘visual’ pollution was deemed the most conspicuous and thus was dealt with swiftly and harshly. Twenty million people – South America’s largest consumer market – were not reachable via outdoor media formats. Time will reveal what the long-term effects of such a ban are.
Across the Atlantic ocean, at the tip of the African continent in Cape Town, a similar battle between the outdoor advertising industry and government is simmering, and has been for over 10 years. While there is no outright ban on outdoor advertising mediums, this media sector is convinced they are being marginalised from operating fully in the city. This is largely because the outdoor advertising and signage by-law governing the legal usage of outdoor advertising in Cape Town is in need of being reviewed and the process is painfully and consistently waylaid, says the industry.
Between 2006 and 2010, the outdoor media industry has engaged with the Cape Town city council in this regard. Said Billy Basson, Out of Home Media South Africa’s (OHMSA’s) acting chairman: “These public discussions were conducted with a view to revise parts of the current by-law. While we were told that our inputs were evaluated, council explained that no amendments would be made to the statute.”
Essentially, the by-law limits outdoor advertising within the greater metropolitan area of the city. It reads: “The objective of this by-law is to ensure that outdoor advertising respects the integrity of any site on which it is displayed, and complements the character of the locality in which it is displayed. The sensitivity of the proposed locality of a sign and its capacity to withstand the visual impact are the most important guiding principles for the control of outdoor advertising. Outdoor advertising signs should only be placed where they are most compatible with the surrounding locality and where they do not impact on visual corridors and/or scenic drives…(the by-law) seeks to strike a balance between outdoor advertising opportunities and economic development on the one hand; and the conservation of visual, tourist, traffic safety, environmental and heritage characteristics on the other.”
Of course, notes Basson, the environmental and heritage concerns are more than reasonable. But where and how the city rejects outdoor advertising requests is unreasonable. “Over the years, we have worked very hard to highlight the inconsistencies and to propose a viable way forward. We have asked specialists to review traffic issues, real environment constraints and legal matters so that we can all agree on a mutually beneficial by-law.”
But a mutually beneficial way seemed to present itself when Mayor Patricia de Lille called for a ‘think tank’ between industry and governmental stakeholders in June. De Lille intended to formulate a policy document and to review the current by-law. Attendees at the think tank – held at the Cape Town Civic Centre – included representatives from several out of home advertising companies, advertising agencies, OHMSA, estate agents, ratepayer associations and newspapers. Gareth Bloor, executive director of the Cape Town Economic and Environmental Planning Commission, chaired the meeting. Disappointingly, De Lille did not attend.
“Positively, Bloor said that the emphasis in the planning department was to create an economically enabling environment in the city. He said that one of the tools to achieve this would be to review and rationalise existing regulations that hold major inconsistencies,” Basson said.
OHMSA noted that the by-law unfairly distinguished between first and third party advertising. A random example explains this point: if KFC wants to advertise, it can only do so on sites where it operates. So it can advertise at franchises and, say, at its chicken farms. But KFC would not be able to advertise on a main road in Cape Town where its business is not specifically based. The reason the council made the distinction between first and third party advertising was because it cited ”traffic distractions”.
The first and third party advertising debacle boiled over when Independent Outdoor Media (IOM) lodged an appeal with the Supreme Court following a lost court case against the City of Cape Town over this same issue. IOM’s billboards in Somerset Road, Sir Lowry Road, the Main Road in Rondebosch, Buitensingel, Nelson Mandela Boulevard, the N2, New Church Street and Kloof Street promote alcohol, fast food outlets and financial institutions. The council declared these illegal and demanded the signs be taken down. But IOM’s Supreme Court appeal has in the meantime thwarted the City of Cape Town’s move to have the billboards removed. The case court date is yet to be advised.
Says Kylie Hatton, the City of Cape Town’s media manager, in a statement responding to the issue of first and third party advertising, “the signage industry in Cape Town is extremely profitable. Outlays are minimal, and a single sign can earn the signage company in excess of R20 000 per month. If left unchecked, the proliferation of such signs is thus inevitable and the consequence would be a degradation of the aesthetics of our environment – all without any tangible advantage or benefit for the residents of Cape Town. The City…wishes to emphasise that it is not opposed in principle to all outdoor signage. Accordingly, the Outdoor Advertising and Signage By-law seeks to establish a balance between outdoor advertising opportunities.”
OHMSA and other industry stakeholders have taken issue with the fact that the process for application to erect outdoor advertising signs is laboured. “We are quite frustrated because there are delays in responses to applications; there is a lack of communication and; there are large prohibitive costs involved in the approval process,” says Basson.
Hatton said that each application is carefully considered: “(We follow that) different sign types are appropriate in different receiving environments – each application is evaluated with this in mind.”
Basson said that at the think tank, industry players pointed out their concerns, and highlighted the positive contribution the out of home advertising industry can make to the city. “We explained that we can assist with the aesthetic improvement of Cape Town. We are committed to upholding the city as the world’s design capital and so would ensure that iconic and creative structures are erected. We are willing to be in keeping with all of the city’s cultural and artistic objectives.”
This was noted by the authorities, but Basson and others wait with bated breath as to the outcome of the meeting and whether a healthy compromise will be reached between the city and advertisers.
“The city is working towards formulating a policy document that enables stakeholders to interpret the by-law. But we believe that time is better spent redrafting the by-law and then embarking on a document to interpret a revised by-law,” says Basson.
No time frames were given as to how long the drafting of the document will take to be presented for comment. “Despite the uncertainty, we believe it is a positive step in the right direction,” says Basson. “It was the first time that we were invited by the council to attend a meeting with them, as opposed to us simply commenting on draft legislation in a public forum. We will wait and see.”
This story was first published in the September 2012 edition of The Media magazine.