When it comes to the visual landscape of cities, advertisements and billboards have played an important role across the world. Take Times Square. It is the world’s most visited place. This New York intersection provides a spectacle to over 300,00 visitors and tourists who pass by everyday. These signs, designed to insert brand names in our minds to increase sales, play a role as entertainment with their flashing lights and moving images. Times Square is an example of Robert Venturi’s “less is a bore” dictum. The more signs, the more entertaining.
Times Square. By Terabass (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons.
In dealing with outdoor advertising, cities negotiate both sides of the visual noise spectrum, either relying on advertising to bring in tax revenue to the city, despite the visual saturation it produces. Park benches, bus stops, trash cans and even wifi kiosks, like in New York, are subject to being covered with advertisements. On the other hand, some cities have opted for a visually clean and ad-free urban environments, like Sao Paulo that in 2007 removed 15,000 billboards and 300,000 over-sized storefront signs, or Chennai, India that banned new billboards in 2009. 
A “no-advertisement” billboard by Lead Pencil Studio, installed on the US-Canada border.
The attention people put on an outdoor billboard is now challenged by online ads, as more people have access to mobile devices with internet access. Whether riding a subway, or sitting through traffic, our attention throughout the day is grabbed by screens large and small, at work and while traveling.
Google continues to dominate the online advertising industry through ads placed on websites, search results and other Google products like Gmail and YouTube. Google, along with other websites that rely on advertising, like Facebook and Yahoo, have contributed to build an ad-based model for a great part of the online content we consume. If the world wide web had a physical representation, like a city, it might very well look like Times Square, except with a population of over three billion, the equivalent of the current number of people with internet access.
The City is the battleground of the values of the culture
—Max Lerner, 1958
Learning from Netflix: An ad-free world for cities is possible
Netflix is the 35th most visited website in the world. In 2013 Netflix began producing its own shows, reducing the need to rely on third-party produced content. Every year Netflix commissions dozens of shows, documentaries and films. Its original content produced by world-famous directors, producers and actors. Since Netflix began streaming movies, it did so without any ads. All content is paid for by the fees paid by the 74 million users it currently has.
Cities that adopt a Netflix model would eliminate outdoor advertising altogether, and invest in cultural production that would in turn attract companies and retain the city’s talent. As urbanist Richard Florida proclaims, cities with a strong “creative class” attract talent and investment. Cities with a strong cultural agenda and tolerant to people of different cultures, sexual orientation, or viewpoints, are more attractive than cities without such an offer.
The piece “Perception” by Tunisian-French artist eL Seed spans over numerous brick buildings in Cairo’s neglected Manshiyat Naser neighborhood. (Photo: eL Seed; Image via techinsider.io)
Learning from Intel: Collaborating with content creators
While some public transit systems post poems and artwork on their advertising spots in subway trains and buses, much more can be done to output creative work in cities. What if cities followed the steps of Intel to create novel cultural projects? In 2009, Intel partnered with VICE to produce a series of events and creative works. Since the beginning of Creators Project, both brands have made possible 600 collaborations with artists involving the likes of Daft Punk, Spike Jonze, Michel Gondry, Ai Wei Wei, Pharrell, and other innovators that combine art and technology. Intel has tapped into VICE’s experience curating content in order to deliver cultural projects that entertain millennials and adults all over the world.
If Intel’s Creators Project promotes the use of products that bear their computer chips to a young audience, then cities that follow their steps could partner with like-minded companies. If Intel appointed will.i.am as its director of creative innovation, then cities could also bring chief creative leaders into government. If the Creators Project reaches a global audience of over 85 million, then cities could promote their brand globally.
Learning from Google: Relevant information in the right place
The world’s biggest company has expanded its revenue year after year thanks to the growing rates of internet adoption across the world and the increase of mobile devices users. One of the keys in providing a successful service is Google’s relevance of search results, whether searching on a desktop, browsing maps or videos on a mobile device. What might cities be like if their outdoor advertising was run by Google? Would the aggregate preferences of people passing by in a given street corner, determine the type of ads that are delivered to that group of people, based on their tastes, surroundings or destination? The same billboards could at other times deliver information about the city’s services.
The way Google has managed to continue bringing in more cash is not by its ability to place ads on websites, but by deciphering the relevance and value that an ad has to its target audience. It is only a matter of time when we will see new developments in advertising, now experienced in small screens, brought to large screens in physical spaces. In public spaces, like Times Square, we might soon see advertisements delivered by the aggregate interests of people passing-by at any given time. Or cities could tap into Google’s data to deliver relevant information: maps and information for tourists, reminders about the city’s services, invitations to government-citizen dialogues, statistical data about a city block, etc.
The conventional advertising model based on displaying a single message to as many people as possible is no longer the only, or even most effective model to promote brands or products. Cities will continue to be working experiments for how advertisements and cultural expressions intertwine. Cities can learn from Netflix the importance cultural production plays to add value to public life without the use of ads or billboards, creating a clean visual culture of their cities. Mayors can also learn from Intel as a model for collaboration with like-minded companies and how to promote a city to a global audience. Or following Google’s model of relevant advertising, cities could deliver the right messages to the right people in the right places.
 Can cities kick ads? Inside the global movement to ban urban billboards., The Guardian. August 12, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/cities/2015/aug/11/can-cities-kick-ads-ban-urban-billboards