Can cities kick ads? Inside the global movement to ban urban billboards

San Paulo
Safe for eyeballs … in a single year, São Paulo removed 15,000 billboards, many of which were replaced by street art. Photograph: Adam Hester/Corbis

Something seemed strange. Staring out of a hotel window in São Paulo, my eye was caught by an oversized digital display crowning the top of an undersized skyscraper. Steadily flashing the time, then the temperature, the display was incongruous in a way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. It was only later, when a colleague mentioned that São Paulo had banned billboard advertising, that I realised what had felt so odd about my view. Those flashing numbers were the only visible signage actively making a play for my attention. Having come from New York, I was used to looking out at a landscape of logos and gargantuan product shots; a vista of advertisements all jostling for “eyeballs”, as the industry so charmingly puts it.

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