Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Eyeballs or oxygen?

Updated 15 Jul, 2015 10:57am
To reduce environmental damage, massive urban plantation and a strict billboards installation policy are now imperative.
Photo: Arslan/File.
Photo: Arslan/File.

The recent heat wave and the tragedy that unfolded in its wake in Karachi put the focus on trees, or rather the lack of them in this bustling, sprawling metropolis. Lack of adequate tree cover and the consequent absence of shade were cited as some of the causes that exacerbated the effects of the heat wave.

One of the alleged reasons for the loss in tree cover was to make more space for billboards. However trees are also routinely cut in order to make way for development projects such as roads, bridges and flyovers. Or the wood is used for fuel by the homeless, or stolen by the timber mafia.

However, the purpose of this blog is to examine charges of environmentally unfriendly practices leveled against outdoor advertisers and out of home (OOH) agencies. But first a quick look at the OOH industry.

According to the Aurora Fact File, OOH ad spend in 2013-14 was around three billion rupees (five percent of overall ad spend). Outdoor doesn’t just include hoardings and billboards but also traffic island branding, which means that yet another green spot can potentially be compromised due to this form of advertising. According to a report by Mahim Maher in the Express Tribune titled Skin City, there are over 3000 billboards in Karachi.

Research by Spark Communications shows which product categories spent the most on OOH media:
Research by Spark Communications shows which product categories spent the most on OOH media:

There are 17 agencies which regulate outdoor industry including the CDGK (or the City Government/KMC), Faisal Cantonment, Clifton Cantonment and Malir Cantonment. These authorities rake in profits to the tune of millions when billboards are erected. But are there any regulations to check the standards and their placement? Yes and no.

The Advertisement and Signage By-laws were formulated in the days of Niamatullah Khan, and amended during Mustafa Kamal’s term. Parameters like sizes, material used, categories, revenue, strength, distance etc are included in these by-laws. Further changes were made to the by-laws after the cyclone Yemyin in 2007 in which falling billboards claimed many lives. The changes called for additional strengthening of the structures so they could withstand natural hazards. However, nothing specific is mentioned about the impact of billboards on the already meager tree cover (less than eight percent according to a 2008 survey by Suparco). However the by-laws do stipulate that trees will not be cut to make room for hoardings.

The President of SOAA (Sindh Outdoor Advertisers’ Association), Rahat Muhammad Ali says that all the members are aware of the guidelines about the ban on tree cutting.

If a tree near a billboard is growing to a height that starts obstructing the message, then the relevant agency submits an application to the relevant Directorate in KMC, which in turn tells its Horticulture department to prune the ‘offending’ branches.

The relevant officials of two of the Cantonment Boards, Clifton and Faisal, were approached about the allegations of tree cutting to increase visibility of the billboards but they said this was not happening within their areas. They said all Cantonments had common SOPs with few permissions being granted for new hoardings in their areas. They also said that if a tree existed, then permission for hoardings was denied.

Despite these claims, some OOH agency personnel admitted on condition of anonymity that because they have to submit photographs of the billboards to their clients as part of their reporting procedure, pruning and cutting takes place by ‘hiring’ a contractor to do it on the sly, usually during the night. These contractors also sell the wood so the money given by the agency is the icing on the cake. When asked about this practice, the Cantonment Board officials said this was impossible as their Vigilance Staff patrols the roads all night.

It is not difficult to surmise which party wins in this tussle between revenue and environmentally unfriendly practices. However, this is just a pyrrhic victory because it results in a loss of health for citizens.

The focus on environmental matters after the deaths caused by the heat wave provides us with a small window of opportunity in which to address these matters and urge the authorities to not only undertake massive urban plantation, but also to rationalise the spread of the billboards to reduce the visual clutter in the city. In this, the clients, advertisers and OOH agencies will have to come on board as allies, for even they consume the oxygen that needs constant regeneration.