Carlo's Think Pieces

Reflections of a Filipino in the Netherlands

Rules on Billboards

Posted by butalidnl on 19 July 2011

The Metro Manila Development Authority (MMDA) took down billboards along EDSA that were considered ‘morally questionable’ (or malaswa, if you asked Mama Dionisia). Interestingly, they say they did this because the billboards were too big. The ad was that of the Philippine Volcanoes, featuring several players of the Philippine Rugby team wearing only their underwear. (Interestingly, the MMDA didn’t do anything about another billboard, featuring Aby Borromeo of the Azkals, the Philippine soccer team, who was also in his underwear. Favoritism perhaps? ) When the MMDA was asked why billboards with bikini-clad women weren’t taken down; they answered that there were no complaints about those ads.

I think that the Philippine Volcanoes ad properly served its advertising purpose. Studies show that wives generally buy underwear for their husbands. So, making an ad which gets a woman’s attention will stimulate them to buy those brands of underwear for their husbands.

The MMDA policy, which is obviously not one about billboard size, is very subjective and inconsistent, It would indeed be to everyone’s benefit if rules could be drawn up and applied consistently. Let’s see what these rules could be.

Safety
Authorities need to ensure road safety, and billboards are part of this concern. No ads should be placed that distract drivers from concentrating on driving especially during critical moments.  They should not prevent them from seeing and heeding road signs.

In Europe, most road signs have a blue background with white letters or a white background with red letters. No ads are allowed near them, nor should they resemble a road sign. I believe that there should be a similar prohibition of distracting ads in the Philippines. And if we want to be really strict about roadside ads not hindering traffic, ads should also be prohibited at intersections or rotondas, because drivers need to concentrate on the road especially at these points.

Then there is the matter of physical safety. Billboards should be able to withstand a sustained 150 kilometer/hour wind, and gusts of up to 200 kph. Otherwise, road users will be in danger of being hit by falling (or flying) billboards during storms.  If a billboard should indeed fall, the owner should be held liable for any damage, and his permit to install billboards should be suspended or revoked.

Content
The Ad Standards Council, an advertising industry self-regulating body, recently announced that it will “adopt stricter standards, guidelines, an procedures in the exercise of self-restraint and self-regulation…”  I am afraid that in their zeal, they will impose prude, homophobic, Catholic standards of what constitutes good taste.

The Ad Standards Council and the MMDA should sit down to agree on clear standards of billboard content, which would then be implemented consistently. These guidelines should be explicit and detailed on what is not allowed on billboards.  I suggest the following:
– explicit showing of ‘private parts’ (defined as sex organs, pubic hair and women’s nipples), or of the sex act (even when no private parts are seen);
– graphic violence (e.g. mutilation, wielding of lethal weapons, etc);
– illegal goods (e.g. drugs) , unless they are part of a government information campaign.
Then, by elimination, everything else should be allowed in principle.  No archaic Roman Catholic principles or values should enter into consideration.

One may expect that advertisements of all kinds would be allowed in the Netherlands, since it is supposed to be a liberal country. In a way, it is true:  condom advertisements are prominent during the vacation period, and bare women’s breasts are seen in some soap commercials (after all, it would not be natural for women to cover their breasts while taking a shower). But, about 15 years ago, there was an uproar about one billboard ad. In the ad, a man was seen drinking coffee, and the text below said: “Is there coffee after death?” It was an ad promoting the virtues of getting a Premium plan for Funeral insurance, which would include refreshments after the funeral service and other things in the package.

The Dutch were shocked. In Dutch society, making jokes about death or funerals is taboo. The Cabinet finally decided to take the ad down after hundreds (perhaps thousands) of complaints were filed.  Being foreign-born, I found the whole incident quite amusing. I feel that the Ad should have remained up; it would have been educational for the Dutch. But that’s just me, of course. This all goes to show how arbitrary ‘moral values’ could be.

The lesson I learn from the Dutch incident is that Ads should be allowed, with only few restrictions. And that even if an Ad may offend the sensitivities or tastes of some (powerful) people, they may be informative or liberating for others.

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