What we see and experience in Philadelphia’s public space is an enormous asset to the people who live here as well as a big attraction for those who visit. From public art to parks to architecture, Philly is a city built like no other. It was planned as the “Green Country Town,” designed from the beginning to value parks, streetscapes, and other public spaces. We’re the first World Heritage City in the United States due in large part to our architecture, which includes 67 National Historic Landmarks. And we’re known around the globe as the “Mural Capital of the World,” home to thousands of murals across the city.
But we’ve lately seen more of an unwelcome addition to public space: outdoor advertising, which offers little to Philadelphians and our visitors.
As someone who has blogged regularly about art in Philadelphia’s public space for the last eight years with StreetsDept.com, I’ve carefully watched who is shaping our shared spaces — and for what purpose. I can’t emphasize the our in that sentence enough. As our city continues to grow, our streets, parks, and public transit will only see more people, and advertisers will find more reason to shape our city’s civic commons for their own interests.
The conversation around the role of outdoor advertising in streetscapes came to a head for me yet again this summer, because of large-scale actions from two Philly companies. The first was Jefferson’s ad “takeover” of 30th Street Station that installed a massive Jefferson logo inside the Philly landmark for several weeks starting on June 19. I joined dozens of fellow Philadelphians on Instagram to criticize this tired marketing stunt.
If Jefferson truly wanted to make an impact in, and not just occupy, Philly’s public space, it could have used the funds spent on that ad to fund repainting the worn-away LGBTQ Pride crosswalk in the Gayborhood. Jefferson recently Instagrammed about the crosswalk too, and it’s not far from its university’s Center City campus. Heck, Jefferson could even pay to repaint it every year before Pride Month and install a small sponsor sign at that intersection that might even get more eyes in the end than its 30th Street logo drop.
The second public space flop came to light in last few weeks, from the Philly-headquartered Five Below. It’s a beautifully hand-painted ad on the side of an eight-story building on Market, above one of SEPTA’s busier El stops, at Eighth Street, facing City Hall. While that wall had been blank for years, it has previously been used for larger-scale ads. However, as Five Below’s new ad started to go up a few weeks ago and before its logo was added, many people across social media including myself began guessing, perhaps hoping, that it was the beginning of an ambitious new mural project.
Once Five Below’s logo was added it became clear the mural did not present the playful musings of an artist’s mind or ideas brainstormed in community meetings. Instead, it portrays items you can purchase at the chain store, like whoopee cushions and lava lamps. Five Below’s target demographics are children and teens, and this new mural ad is meant to grab the imaginations of those young minds to inspire them to ... shop. What a deeply disappointing move.
Now let me be clear: There’s no doubt that this hand-painted advertisement supports a number of local artists, and that’s great. The artists creating the ad come from the deeply talented Meg Saligman Studios. Murals from Saligman’s studio are among Philadelphia’s most iconic, like Common Threads at Broad and Spring Garden Streets and Philadelphia Muses at 13th and Locust. This new Market Street ad features some of the studio’s dreamy qualities that I love so much. It isn’t even completed yet and you can already tell it’s stunning work. My frustration here lies squarely with Five Below.
Five Below could have taken the budget it built in for this ad and given it directly to the artist studio, then effectively backed off. We don’t need heavy corporate hands inserting their influence onto an eight-story mural on one of our city’s busiest streets. We need true partners for Philly artists and public space. Imagine what kind of new iconic mural this artist team could have created with Five Below’s financial support sans the company’s marketing directive. Five Below could have simply been thanked in a press release for its support of the artists, and gotten its company logo placed on the mural’s plaque for all to see, and it would have added something to this city. Unfortunately, it has co-opted our public space for commercial interests: advertising to kids.
Thankfully you don’t need to look far to see an example of the kind of corporate support I’m talking about — just on the other side of City Hall. At 18th and Market, you’ll find a 22-story mural designed and painted by the artist MOMO in 2015 with Mural Arts Philadelphia’s Art Education program and support from Bank of America. As a smaller-scale example, the Philly-based coffee shop Elixr organizes public events and art installations on the interior and exterior of its Center City location with curator Ryan Strand Greenberg. There are a lot of great examples of companies and brands actually supporting public art and artists in Philly, and many do.
The fight to encourage these fruitful collaborations, and limit outdoor advertising, is growing. In the arts community, of which I’m a part, two notable initiatives come from the Public Ad Campaign (including many Philly artists’ contributions) and Art in Ad Places. I’ve also personally worked on two campaigns here in Philly, Trashcan Takeover and Track Takeover, with the marketing consultant and artist Brendan Lowry, along with a corporate sponsor that worked to temporarily replace ads with art from local artists.
Smart city leaders have caught on elsewhere too. In Brazil, São Paulo eliminated outdoor advertising in 2007 to the reported delight of its citizens, making room for more public art and murals. The French city of Grenoble became the first city in Europe to ban all commercial street advertising in 2015. And here in the U.S., several states including Vermont, Maine, Hawaii, and Alaska are now billboard-free.
As frustrating as this kind of advertising is to me and many others, I know these companies aren’t inherently bad. I worked in marketing for years myself, so I know these are just people doing what’s expected of them: filling new and old ad spaces and trying to think outside the box. What I’m suggesting is that we push back on this norm to change what’s expected of them.
How we use our public space defines us. Any city can make space for outdoor advertising, but it’s Philly’s murals, architecture, and parks that make our city ours. Let’s make more space for artists and arts communities and end outdoor advertising in Philly for good.
Conrad Benner is a Fishtown-born and -raised photographer, podcaster, curator, and founder of StreetsDept.com, a photo blog that discovers art on the streets of Philadelphia.