October 3, 2006


By John L. Silva

In the past, anti-billboard advocates had little ammunition except aesthetics and moral suasion in appealing to billboard companies over the proliferation of these structures. The first spate of fallen billboards the past year did not faze the billboard companies whose pithy response was an empty promise to regulate their ranks. Just recently, in talking to representatives of United Neon over removing their billboard in the University Belt, citing aesthetic and safety considerations, they listened but instead griped over the mushrooming of fly-by-night billboard companies.

If the current public anger over the billboards are to have an effect, let’s get down to brass tacks. First, the billboard companies do not exist nor multiply on their own. They are supported from local and multinational companies who use billboards as a cheap advertising alternative. That’s the first mistake. Marketing studies repeatedly show that when you have unregulated billboard clutter, the message is diluted. Cellphones, fast food, real estate and adult diaper billboards side by side and on top of each other no longer have an effect except to be randomly chaotic and ugly.

To motorists (aka consumers), research findings on billboards reveal they raise blood pressure levels, distract and create accidents, and now, can topple and kill us. Instead of selling their wares, companies are now complicit in physically harming their market.

Companies know that billboards deflate real estate prices and discourage tourism. We have a situation where there is an untrammeled use of billboards at the expense of a real estate market and a tourism industry that could use a shot in the arm. It’s hard calling the country a retiree/vacation paradise with the current billboard blight.

Certificates of compliance are issued with regularity to billboard companies by various city governments. Billboard companies have gotten away with stating that their structures can withstand winds of 200 kph. But billboard insiders also admit that unscrupulous sub-contractors can scrimp on building materials and erect structures whose wind resistance claim can’t be relied on. Typhoon Milenyo’s deadly winds by the time it got to Manila was reported between 110-140 kph.

If the Mayors of the cities are now decrying billboards the income they get from it can mollify their resolve. In Manila, you can get a certificate of compliance for a large billboard for a fee of 80,000 pesos. Count the billboards and multiply the fee and their howling may just be that.

When the media reports how traffic was snarled for hours due to fallen billboards, it misleads people to think it’s all a motorist inconvenience. Meralco representatives have stated that aside from downed trees, fallen billboards have destroyed powerlines and caused blackouts. Trees are relatively short and you can saw them easily. A fallen billboard, four stories high can down large transformers that have to be blowtorched to extricate them prolonging the power outages Manila residents have experienced. Every day without power translates into billions of pesos lost in commerce, airport and transportation disruptions, business shutdown, schools and universities closed, and vital centers like hospitals and military camps jeopardized. A fallen billboard is not just a nuisance. It is a national economic calamity.

It seems a puzzle why the media does not identify the billboard companies whose billboards have fallen, nor do they state what company was actually advertising on those billboards. The public has the right to know who’s responsible, just like the public knew who was responsible for the Guimaras oil spill. And now, with deaths involved, the public, particularly the aggrieved, should know who are criminally liable.

A reminder about Corporate Social Responsibility much bruited about these days. When Typhoon Milenyo blew a massive billboard on two vehicles at the corner of MIA Road and Roxas Boulevard, the owners were not around to secure their fallen property, nor took care of the injured, and the police were nowhere to be seen. In less than an hour, hundreds of scavengers from the nearby squatter’s area swarmed all over the fallen wreck sawing it to pieces for scrap resale. This scene of wholesale looting happened for the next two days and witnessed by millions of commuters traversing Roxas Boulevard. The values imparted was that a company was negligent and couldn’t care less about people’s lives and that looting was alright to do. Yes, there’s poverty and poor people will do everything in desperation. But corporations, in their unbridled use of billboards must take responsibility for the spawning of lumpen values diametrical to Corporate Social Responsibility.

Senator Miriam Defensor Santiago’s pending bill in the Senate, entitled Anti-Billboard Blight Act (S.B.1714) has greater hope for its passage given recent events. If approved, the bill will, among other things, severely limit the number of billboards, will not exceed 300 sq feet in size, will not be allowed in areas that will impair scenic vistas or jeopardize traffic signs, and will not be erected within 1,000 feet of a historic site, school, church, or park. In other words, a much needed and very welcome law for our country.

It took one major typhoon, a needless death and scores injured to shake public consciousness and condemn billboards. It may have been caused by nature’s wrath but corporate rapaciousness wasn’t too far behind.

John L. Silva is the Senior Consultant for the National Museum of the Philippines and is a member of the Heritage Conservation Society.

Check John’s blog


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