How brands make companies accountable to you

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An ad on every surface – Times Square, New York. Photo by Eunice

Every day we are exposed to thousands of commercial messages. From simple printed logos through to screen-based advertising – brands are working harder than ever to capture our attention.

It seems that every surface is up for grabs. Advertising space can be purchased on parking ticket stickers, town roundabout signs, supermarket trolley displays, and even airport security trays.

Yankelovich, a market research company, estimates people living in cities see 5,000 ad messages every day – more than twice the number seen 30 years ago.

The residents of some cities have had enough. In 2007 Gilberto Kassab, the Mayor of São Paulo, put in place Lei Cidade Limpa – the Clean City Law – which designated outdoor adverts a form of “visual pollution”.

In 12 months over 15,000 billboards were taken down and 300,000 oversized shopfront signs were removed.

São Paulo is not alone. In the US advertising hoardings are banned in four states: Alaska, Hawaii, Maine and Vermont.

There has been a major backlash against intrusive advertising online too. Millions have installed ad-blocking software.

I was reminded of this while attending the brilliant and proudly sponsorship-free Green Man Festival in the Brecon Beacons last weekend, where the only logos you will see sit above quirky independent food stalls.

But this is not to say branding or advertising are bad things.

Brands were originally created to help people tell the difference between products – no small matter back when buying food from an untrustworthy producer could potentially kill you.

Brands give buyers a way to reward quality sellers with repeat purchases, and punish inferior sellers by withdrawing their custom. Brands make companies accountable.

It is hard to publicly shame a nameless polluter or faceless employer of child labour, but brands are vulnerable to consumer boycotts and shareholder pressure if they get caught acting improperly – something that can happen rapidly in the age of social media.

This helps explain why the CEOs of so many major American brands recently resigned from White House business advisory councils, as pressure mounted from their customers to do so.

After the tragic events at Charlottesville it appears there are few brands more toxic than Trump.

Avenida São João -Billboard free downtown São Paulo. Photo by Diego Torres Silvestre

This article first appeared in the Lancashire Post, Lancaster Guardian and Blackpool Gazette as a weekly column.

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