Good Ad, Bad Ad

plateau billboard

Down with billboards

The Plateau Mont-Royal is en route to becoming the first billboard-free zone in Montreal: in July the borough passed a bylaw banning the installation of new advertising billboards, and this month they voted to remove existing billboards within a year.

In a press release, Projet Montréal said that the billboard ban aims to reduce visual pollution. There are currently 45 billboards in the borough which earn the central city $40,000 a year in tax dollars. The Plateau Borough does not get any income from these advertisements.

“The main beneficiaries of this advertising are a handful of powerful companies. The losers are the citizens exposed to theirs ugliness day after day after day. It’s a very bad deal for Montrealers,” said Alex Norris, borough councillor for Projet Montréal in the Mile End district.

In an editorial last Friday, The Gazette showed its true colours when it rushed to defend commercial advertisers’ rights:

“Advertising does not exist to serve his borough. And companies that advertise create the jobs, the products and the wealth that governments tax. Fortunately, commercial advertising has some protection under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and a prominent lawyer predicts confidently that the borough’s measure would not survive a court test.”

The Gazette also pointed to the case of Oakville, ON, who lost a 14-year battle to ban billboards on their territory. In Vann Media Group Inc vs Oakville, 2008, Justice Paul Rouleau said billboards were “similar to books, newspapers and radio or television, in that they provide a medium through which messages are conveyed. Although the dominant use of billboards is to convey commercial messages, they are, on occasion, used to convey political, personal, charitable and many other types of messages.”

In a similar case in San Francisco, the US Supreme Court ruled that: “Insofar as it regulates commercial speech, the ordinance meets the constitutional requirements…However, the city’s general ban on signs carrying noncommercial advertising is invalid under the First and Fourteenth Amendments.”

Basically, the two judges concluded that we can’t ban the medium because of the message…

Up with the posters?

Of course this is exactly the kind of argument that led the Supreme Court and the Quebec court of appeal to defend postering under the charter of rights.

So posters promoting a local, independent arts scene are good while billboards advertising the products of a multi-national corporation are bad, right? But what about posters promoting corporate products; what about artistic billboards?

It all comes down to the fickle issue of content – a judgement that may not be wise to leave in the hands of city workers. Another judge, commenting on the San Francisco case, pointed out the difficulties and even dangers practicing such a distinction:

“It is one thing for a court to classify in specific cases whether commercial or noncommercial speech is involved, but quite another — and for me dispositively so — for a city to do so regularly for the purpose of deciding what messages may be communicated by way of billboards”

“I have no doubt that those who seek to convey commercial messages will engage in the most imaginative of exercises to place themselves within the safe haven of noncommercial speech, while at the same time conveying their commercial message. Encouraging such behavior can only make the job of city officials — who already are inclined to ban billboards — that much more difficult and potentially intrusive upon legitimate noncommercial expression.”

City councillor Alex Norris believes that any advertiser who fights the ban will end up “losing in the court of public opinion.” But the right to erect billboards would likely be defended by third-party companies who profit from renting the advertising space, rather than the brands that are promoted through billboards, so public opinion may be of little importance to the debate.

One thing that the borough can do is limit the size and placement of advertisements, be they of the poster or the billboard variety. Rather than risking another costly visit to the courts, perhaps this would be a more fruitful avenue to pursue in both dossiers?

Qu’en pensez-vous?
Mile End poster photo by Christopher DeWolf.


  1. The bigger question… who will be paying for the legal costs? Sure, it’s easy to pass a law. It’s harder to defend it. In the end, the citizens of the Plateau will end up paying for these legal costs.

    Do you think that the borough mayor might think otherwise if he was responsible for the legal costs, instead of it coming out of our pockets?

  2. It seems to me like a question of scale. Billboards require huge, costly structures that can be easily regulated out of existence. There’s no reason why anyone should have the right to build a metal tower on their roof in order to make some money from advertising.

    I think the real issue here is grassroots postering vs. corporate postering. There’s something inherently different about someone using a hand-drawn poster to promote a zine fair, book launch or music gig and a company that uses posters to promote a car or a brand of bodywash. One clearly has value to the community; the other doesn’t. But you couldn’t possibly create a legal distinction between the two.

    Even trickier is when the corporate advertising co-opts more grassroots imagery or media, like the Antlerheads campaign a few years back that hired a well-known Toronto street artist to design an obscure, ironic paste-up campaign for a scooter company.

    There’s no problem with banning billboards because you’re banning a physical structure, not the advertising itself. But the question you seem to be asking is whether we should regulate content, and I’m not sure how we could do that without making a huge mess.

  3. I don’t see any particular reason why we should, or how we could ban commercial advertising on the territory. Although I strongly support banning billboards, such as the ones near the train tracks along the underpasses, I still believe it is unfair to ban commercial advertising at large; or at least, to differentiate between “grassroot postering” and “corporate postering”. 

    Plenty of “corporate posterings” are now iconic structures for Montrealers, and visitors. Let’s think about “Farine Five Roses”: this giant vibrant red neon sign, which tells you, coming from the Bonaventure highway, that you’ve now arrived to Montreal. Also, the Milk bottle, an icon, and almost a relic of Montreal’s heritage. Let me not mention the pair of lips on top of the Musee d’art Contemporain at Place des Arts. 

    I believe in in regulating billboarding or postering (or however you call it), rather than simply putting an end to it. If advertising companies were forced and limited to making size-appropriate and aesthetically-pleasing ads, the debate would be different. 

  4. Personally, I’d rather see postering permitted than billboards torn down. As I see it, both issues require the city to provide or permit a certain structure or medium which allows a certain type of communication to take place.

    That said, Benoit Gratton of Montréalité Urbaines points out that there seems to effectively be a ban on billboard structures in Westmount:

    It seems that eliminating existing structures – or rather profits – is what gets cities tangled up in the courts.

    Perhaps the borough could avoid the issue by buying the billboards and renting out the advertising space on a sliding scale with affoardable rates for local businesses (which would have an actual benefit for the local economy rather than the trickle-down thing the gazette is on about), community groups and even artists? Some could be phased out as new developments grow into the space they currently occupy. But how much is one of those billboards worth? I’m afraid to find out…

  5. Of course the placement of billboards can be regulated. They are regulated all over the country – within certain municipalities, along certain highways, etc. As for content, we have laws in place (obsenity, hate) that already regulate content everywhere. We also have regulations that forbid various advertising in various contexts: cigarettes in magazines (and at the Grand Prix), no one can drink alcohol in a TV ad, etc.

    Anyone who wants to fear monger by saying that we cannot regulate or ban billboards in the Plateau is, simply, incorrect.

  6. Guillaume,

    Many of the ‘iconic’ images which you pointed out are permanent structures which may no longer have their original context, whereas billboard advertising and postering is ephemeral. This is in keeping up with the ‘pace of change’ in modern society. The commercialization of public space is an issue which we will be grappling with for some time to come…. Especially as public moneys become tighter and tighter.

  7. What, we’re not going to just let our benevolent corporate masters walk all over us? We aren’t going to bow down in front of our corporate overlords and their wall-to-wall brand-visibility advertising? We are going to bite the hand that feeds us? We’re going to fight back? Well finally!

  8. @Alanah, There is no reason for the Plateau to back down on this one. We have already done our legal homework, and the borough has every legal right to pass and enforce this bylaw. The Oakville case occurred in a different context, with different facts. Already, billboards are effectively banned everywhere in the entire province of Prince Edward Island, as they are in Victoria, B.C., and in Westmount, Que. Would it make any legal sense to claim that Westmount is within its rights to ban billboards on its territory, but the Plateau is not within its rights to do so on ours? That they can strictly enforce their ban but we may not? Don’t we in the Plateau have the same right to uncluttered sightlines — and all the other benefits that go with banning billboards — as the people of Westmount? I cannot imagine how a judge would deny people here on the Plateau a right that is already enjoyed by others who live in other parts of the country. Keep in mind these two key facts about billboard advertising: (1) It is parasitic; unlike other forms of ads — on TV, the radio, online, at public cultural events, for example — the public gets no benefits — like good journalism or entertaining programming — in return for having to look at these things; all we get is massive, ugly signs that disfigure and cheapen our public landscapes, privatize all benefits and give us nothing back in return. (2) It is invasive. Unlike all other forms of advertising, this is one type of ad — by virtue of the way it takes over highly visible public spaces — that it is impossible to turn away from.
    @Guillaume, don’t worry, we have no plans to ban “commercial advertising” in general. We couldn’t do that, even if we wanted to, which we do not!

  9. …well, I can’t say I particularly like billboards, but, like the great car debate, I just can’t get excited about how they’re destroying my right to a better life in the city — my life is already pretty darn good, and I bet (shh!) it’s because I don’t wander around hating things I don’t like, but spend more time looking for things I DO like.

    But if you hate ’em and want them gone and can make it so, then more power to ya.

  10. @Alex Norris,
    Thanks very much for your comment. I am glad to hear that this bylaw will not get tangled in a legal battle similar to the Oakville case. I’d be curious to know more about what makes this case different and if i have misrepresented the facts i’d be happy to write another post on the subject. I will contact you by email for more information.

  11. It should be pointed out that the financial aspect of the billboards has been grossly under estimated by saying that it only brings in 40k in revenue. The 40k in revenue applies only to the special tax that Montreal applies to billboards. The value of the infrastructure is added to the municipal evaluation of the buildings they are on – so that tax revenue should be calculated as well, with 45 installation, I wouldn’t be surprised if the combined figure was well into the 7 figures (eval).

    Secondly, I think it is naïve to assume that there will not be legal challenges to this bylaw. Though it might fall within the parameters of the borough to act within the Loi sur l’aménagement et l’urbanisme, there is also the Loi sur les biens culturels which needs to be factored in. I doubt that the borough will be willing to disclose how much cash it will burn during its defence – I can pretty much guarantee that it wouldn’t be quotable as “peanuts”. It might have been better for a collection of municipalities to pass similar laws at the same time, but I guess that would have required PM to win more seats or have like thought in the suburbs, two impossibilities.

  12. @GDS, actually the 40,000 in tax revenue (from the 45 billboards in the borough) DOES include both the proceeds of the special tax AND the general municipal property tax on those billboards. That is a puny sum when one considers the huge size of these billboards, their impact on the visual environment and the substantial profits they generate for their owners. Keep in mind that the three corporations that operate billboards in the borough charge up to $15,000 per month, per billboard, to advertisers renting space on them. We believe that getting rid of these eyesores will restore public sightlines, enhance public views of our heritage architecture and green space and boost the local economy by making the Plateau a more attractive place to visit. Billboard bans enjoy broad support from the business community for just that reason in places like Vermont where they have been in effect for decades. As for your concerns over a legal battle, we did our homework on this one and are fully within our rights as a borough to have these billboards taken down. We are only seeking for the Plateau what residents of Westmount, Victoria, B.C., PEI, Vermont, Maine, Alaska, Hawaii and Sao Paulo, Brazil, already enjoy: public views uncluttered by this form of visual pollution.

  13. @ Leila and everyone else concerned,
    Banning is (and should without a doubt be) indeed possible.

    My concern laid in the fairness of the ban. If you ban one side, corporate billboards in this instance, the ban should also be true for “community billboards”. 

    Who’s to decide what’s more appropriate for the community? Or what’s more in-tune with the immediate environment? Unless we survey the community at large about every billboard ad going up, I don’t see how this process could be made fair.

    I’m for a global banning of billboards all together!

  14. Also, what is the environmental impact of the billboards and the ads on them?  They seem to use quite a bit of light which would obviously waste some electricity and they certainly add to the light pollution during the night (the cluster of billboards on Van Horn by the sculpture park being a good example, they light up the park pretty well but also caused my friend who used to live nearby to lose some sleep as a result of the light that would shine into her room).  Also, what material are the ads themselves made out of.  Is it recyclable and even if it is (which I doubt), is it really a good use of resources to recycle hundreds of these giant sheets of plastic that are torn down every month?

  15. Billboards are on private property, “postering” is not (and if it is, it is on someone else’s property). If I want to generate some extra revenue by renting my roof to advertisers, I should be allowed.

    I should not be allowed to stick scruffy posters on mailboxes, lampposts and local buildings without permission.

    Whatever happened to the concept of private property in this city?

  16. First time I saw Montréal, I was horrified by those gigantic billboards (mostly those on Parc Av, around Laurier Av.) Some of them were on some street that could look well, but suddenly I felt like in an industrial district…

    Removing this could be an aesthetic added value.

    Added to that, I think that there are already by-laws to limit what could be done on the building themselves to keep the specific cachet of the borough.

    Finally, Mr Robertson, there are some (negative) externalities to that. If it gives some income to those who have that on their roof, it decrease the value of those who directly face those stuff…

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