Advertising in Public Space

Exploring the private use of public space
Research and commentary by Chris Vitas.

Research Statement

The private use of public space — Advertising has become ubiquitous: it can be found in our homes, schools, places of business, and increasingly in our public spaces. Through my research I hope to explore how the advertising industry effects our experience of public space, and wether these effects are positive or negative.


Outdoor advertising may make up only about 8% of total advertising expenditures (5), but unlike other forms of advertising (television, radio, internet, etc) it can't be turned off. This benefit is offset by the inability of outdoor advertising to be transmitted directly to the target audience. Therefor these advertisements tend to be placed in areas with a large amount of traffic in order to maximize exposure. It is this never-ending quest for exposure that has prompted advertisers to create bigger, bolder advertisements and place them as directly into the path of the public as possible.

Advertising has even become part of the planning phase of public space in some cases, Yonge-Dundas Square being a great example. As a joint project between the Yonge Street Business and Residents Association and the City of Toronto the square was designed from the beginning to function not only as a new public space, but also as a commercial entity (6). Yonge-Dundas Square has been the subject of controversy since it's unveiling in 2003 due to the ambiguous nature of its primary function. Debate centers around wether or not its design is more conducive to public enjoyment or the marketing of advertising space (8).

Critical Position

It is my opinion that the goals of the advertising industry are divergent from the goals of a successful public space. Regardless of the fact that members of the advertising industry call them "both an art form and, when you're in your car or alone on foot, a form of entertainment that helps relieve solitude and boredom" (7), outdoor advertisements are both detrimental to the enjoyment of public space and distracting, sometimes dangerously so.

While voicing his disapproval of the advertising ban in São Paulo, Marcel Solimeo, chief economist of the Commercial Association of São Paulo, stated "We live in a consumer society and the essence of capitalism is the availability of information about products." (7). I think it's fairly telling that he doesn't mention how the advertising ban effects the consumer, but instead focuses on how it negatively effects consumer society and capitalism. That's because advertising isn't about the consumer; it's about the product. This is a stark contrast to the purpose of a public place, which is to serve the public. If the advertising industry doesn't have the public's best interest in mind then I don't believe they should be allowed to participate in public space.
Another example of the advertising industry's disregard for the public welfare is the level of distraction produced by outdoor advertising. The bright, animated signs that are becoming more prolific in downtown Toronto create a very large distraction for passing motorists and pedestrians. Setting aside the possible psychological effects of being bombarded with giant flashing ads, there is a very basic safety concern in regard to these types of advertisements. All it takes is a moment's distraction from a passing motorist or a pedestrian crossing the street in order for a tragedy to occur. The Metro Roads Commissioner has even stated that signs of these type are "likely to cause distraction to motorists", and yet still they are erected, sometimes even illegally (9).

Data Collection and Analysis


There are probably a myriad of different studies that could stem from a line of inquiry into advertising in public space. Someday I'd like to see information on how the people of São Paulo's lives have changed since outdoor advertising was removed from the city. It's very rare that something happens on the scale of what they accomplished in São Paulo, and I think that attention should be paid to the repercussions of the ban.


(1) | São Paulo: The Advertising-Free City

(2) Metroblogging Vienna: DELETE


(4) AMIC.COM - Media Guru

(5) Advertising Association | Statistics on Advertising

(6) Yonge-Dundas Square - Home

(7) Billboard ban in Sao Paula angers advertisers - Americas - International Herald Tribune

(8) Dundas Square - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

(9) 21 Bathurst Street, Illegal LCD Screen Installation in Progress :::

Concept Map


Visual Essay