Curbing the Commercialization of Public Space

Date: 15 Jan 2009 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail
Total ad expenditures in the United States have risen from $50 billion in 1979 to $200 billion in 1998. Advertising is seeping into places we once assumed were off-limits.

Fo rinstance, in major cities facades of buildings as well as whole buildings are plastered with a single ad. The Gap and other stores project advertisements from lamps onto sidewalks at night. Public beaches are imprinted with advertisements for iced tea and television shows.

Cultural and religious events now have sponsors whose logos are ubiquitous. Coca-Cola emblazoned the city of Atlanta in red when it sponsored the 1996 Olympics, while Pepsi sponsored the Papal visit to Mexico in 1999. Apple Computer has managed to hang”Think Different” banners, featuring Pablo Picasso and Gustave Eiffel, on the facade of the Louvre in Paris.

Although advertising does play a role in society, its encroachment into new areas constitutes a threat to public space, or the commons. Public space can be physical (a city street) or virtual (the media) but it is the place where ideas are exchanged and debated, helping to inform the citizenry of a democracy. When commercial speech crowds out other kinds of speech in the commons, a variety of points of view can no longer be heard. For instance, when schools broadcast ads to children or sponsor Coke days, childrens’ ability to choose freely among competing ideas is stifled.

Communities should have the right to reserves  paces free of commercialism, where citizens can congregate or exchange ideas on an equal footing, and where those with the most money do not necessarily speak in the loudest voice. Advertising is widely acknowledged to be manipulative, and schools, universites and other public institutions should aspire to treat citizens equitably and fairly.

Communities have attempted to put curbs on advertising and to preserve public spaces, for instance, by restricting large signs and billboards. However, when enacting such laws, communities must tread carefully. A series of Supreme Court decisions in recent years have moved commercial speech ever closer to becoming the equivalent of non-commercial speech, with its strong First Amendment protections. Billboard bans have usually been upheld but other types of restrictions are often overturned.

School board policies banning advertising in public schools have thus far passed muster. Sweden and Norway have banned television advertising to children under 12, but it is unlikely that such a law would be upheld in this country. This page links to model laws and exisiting laws that curb the role of commercialism in communities in order to preserve the role of the commons.

In Europe, a number of laws curb television advertising aimed at children. In Sweden and Norway, television advertisements are not permitted on programs directed specifically to children under the age of twelve. Holland bans sponsorship of ads between children’s programming; Ireland has imposed a ban on ads on late afternoon television; and the Flemish region of Belgium operates similar restrictions. Greece does not permit toy advertisement on television.

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David Morris
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David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.