IN considering the abuses of public advertising, it is best to admit at the start that advertising is a thoroughly creditable, an important, and even an indispensable part of trade, and that its benefit is scarcely less to the consumer than to the producer. Hence, discussion of its “abuses” means only discussion of the wrong use of a good thing, — as one might find, if he wished, a fruitful theme in the “ abuses ” of religion or of public libraries.
As a matter of fact, there are many different phases of this wrong use of public advertising, so that they cannot all be grouped under the two heads, moral and æsthetic, beneath which they would probably be placed by a general audience asked to classify them. There is, for instance, not infrequently, economic abuse. Yet the wrong uses of advertising that concern the public are undoubtedly most often violations of the ideals of morality or æsthetics.
In so far, however, as advertising is public, in the sense that it does not make a personal appeal by inclosure in an addressed envelope, by appearing on the front steps of the house, or under the door, or by its publication in a periodical admitted to the home, the moral issue has ceased to be especially pressing. Even in that personal appeal that is so general as barely to escape being “ public,” the offense (when there is one) is rather in suggestiveness, or against good taste, than actually immoral in its character.
The public advertising that vaunts itself upon the highway recognizes, as regards moral standards, the force of a public opinion that has found itself. It is no part of the advertiser’s business to offend people, and even had he himself a very debased moral standard, that of the community would become his law. So the moral issue, in fact or in name, is raised only now and then concerning the public advertising; and it is confined for the most part to a dispute regarding what may be called the conventional street costume of the ladies of the billboard, in communities with a stricter sense of the proprieties than is common in great cities. The matter becomes one of local option, with the advertisers willing enough to respect the existing prejudices, if they know them ; since the play can hardly make a profit in the town that will not endure its posters. And of all the subjects of public advertising, only one involves these objections.
Thus it is that a consideration of the abuses of this business must deal mainly at present with its violation of æsthetic ideals. There are several reasons for this. The æsthetic standard of the community is much less definite and concurrent than the moral; and advertisers, considering the matter one only of taste, have no special compunction about offending such a standard as may exist. They may even glory in shocking the eye, on the ground that thus they will make an impression, and that, willy nilly, their announcement will be remembered. So in the business of public advertising much is done that an intelligent and increasingly large section of the public may properly deem an abuse of the public’s æsthetic rights ; and there is coming to be serious question concerning these abuses, and what steps can be taken to check or to remedy them.
The first question of the exasperated citizen is likely to be an impatient inquiry whether the whole business of display advertising in public cannot be stopped ; whether the advertisers may not be driven to the newspapers and magazines to make their announcements, pictorial or printed ; or, at best, be suffered to make public announcement only on the premises occupied by the business advertised. If the step were possible, it would be sheer folly to take it. This kind of advertising has been accurately described as an attempt “ to call people’s attention to something for which they are not seeking, but which it may be for their advantage to know.” How long some of us would live without certain little conveniences or luxuries of table, toilet, or dress, and what a business we should have to make of watching the papers for amusement announcements, if display advertising in public were not constantly calling our attention to such matters, insuring us from overlooking them ! The producer’s need of advertising would not exist, did not the public need it also.
The next question, and one repeatedly advanced by those who write letters to newspapers, is whether it may not be possible for an “ enlightened ” public opinion to make its influence felt, and to compel respect for its taste by the advertisers, through means of the boycott. If the goods offensively advertised were not so often the best goods of their class, and if, through the very aggressiveness of their advertisement, their names did not stick in the mind when the article of modest announcement has been forgotten, there might be a chance for the proposed boycott to succeed. But now all the weight of psychology and the force of our poor sheeplike human nature are against it.
Shall we give up the fight, then ; shall we offer no obstructions to the ever rising flood of public advertisements; shall we abandon our towns and cities to them, relinquish the dream of dignity, peace, and beauty in our surroundings ; shall we hold nothing sacred, — sky or ocean, rock or tree, public building, church, or monument ? The churches and monuments of Paris have served as boards for despised and fluttering posters; trees have died that their dead trunks might advertise a pill; romantic scenery has been forced to offer reminder of ache or appetite ; the glory of the sunset silhouettes against the sky the title of a breakfast food; and the windows of the defenseless home look out on circus girls, corsets, and malt whiskey. There is needed no apology for an assertion that the business has abuses ; and clearly, if we cannot deal with it in one general act of prohibition or of boycott, there yet must be expressions and developments upon the abusive quality of which we all shall agree. For such abuses correction should be possible ; but we must be fair, for against unreasonableness even the bulwark of law and ordinance cannot stand.
First, then, we may consider the desecration of natural scenery. This was one of the earliest and most flagrant of the abuses. It is still so rampant on lines of heavy travel that its correction seems a futile dream, and yet in response to a public opinion that is proceeding cautiously and reasonably in its demands reforms are in progress. The Associated Billposters of the United States and Canada now officially condemn the practice of painting signs upon rocks and other natural objects in picturesque landscapes, although they seem to offer no objection to putting a hoarding for posters and paintings in front of the natural object. The distinction is a fine one, but it means some gain. Several railroads have prohibited the erection of billboards on their own property ; and although this scarcely disturbs the advertiser, who can still use the private property on either side of the right of way, it shuts out one possible extension of the abuse that has tremendous possibilities. In at least one case, also, a great railroad company has taken to planting quickly growing trees at such places as to hide the hoardings erected on adjacent land. The Boston and Albany Road has gained a like end in the suburbs of Boston by planting screens of shrubs or a hedge at the top of the cut; and it has become no unusual thing for a railroad company, conscious of the popular feeling, to exert its influence, as far as it can, upon the adjacent property owners, to induce them to refuse to lease advertising rights. But a public opinion, that very unanimously considers the extension of hospitality to advertisements by a barn or other outbuilding, or even by a field, as a badge of the farmer’s poverty, is perhaps doing more than is anything else to remedy this abuse.
When the natural scenery is not that of the free and open country a new phase of the difficulty appears. If it should be easy now for the public to keep advertisements out of a domain which the public has reserved for its own enjoyment, the very circumstance that the exceptional beauty or grandeur of the scene attracts multitudes of visitors makes the field one especially coveted by the advertiser. He cannot enter, but he can go to the border. For example, two governments have united at great expenditure to preserve from violation the majesty of Niagara Falls. Yet on a strip of untaken territory, in full view from nearly every vantage point, an enormous hoarding overlooks the cataract. If it stands upon Canadian soil it advertises an American business, so that the enterprise is as fairly international as must be the recognition of the sign’s unfitness there.
In The Billposter for January, 1903, there was the statement: —
“ At a seaside resort you will find all classes gathered together, all looking for health, rest, and happiness. At these places every one is at ease, there are no business cares to worry or annoy, and when people are in that peculiarly happy frame of mind, they are more easily impressed, and the impressions last longer than at any time.
“ As all advertising is simply the indenting of certain facts into the minds of the public, then at no other place can these results be reached as quickly or as surely as at a seaside resort. In large cities busy men and women may not always have the time to see a billboard or bulletin, but at a seaside resort they take the time to look at it, to read it, and to store up the statements.”
This is the argument of the advertiser. It is the explanation of a development in the business that we all perceive to be an abuse. Its logical conclusion would find in the city parks, created that the people might there find rest and throw off the protective shell of hostile indifference, which in town is their only safeguard against nervous exhaustion, a capital site for billboards. But the public saw this danger, and the parks were saved from trespass. The advertiser accordingly obtained a footing on private lands in sight of the parks, and there erected posters that should scream across the meadows, overtop the shrubs and bushes, and peer among the trees. At Niagara Falls he attained a triumph that was splendid because he had so little to overcome ; but in kind it did not differ from the petty victories on the park borders of countless towns and cities. Thus it has lately become clear that the public must go a step farther, fully to safeguard its own reservations. It must regulate the advertising on the adjacent land.
In Massachusetts a legislative bill became a law in the winter of 1903, conferring upon “the officer or officers, having charge of public parks and parkways in any city or town ” of the state, authority to “ make such reasonable rules and regulations respecting the display of signs, posters, or advertisements in or near to or visible from public parks or parkways entrusted to their care, as they may deem necessary for preserving the objects for which such parks and parkways are established and maintained,” Violation of the regulations adopted was made punishable by fine. The enactment of such a law had been vigorously contested for years, and it was only after a strong and very interesting opinion, upholding its constitutionality, had been secured from the attorney general, that the publicspirited bodies engaged in pushing the bill were able to secure its passage. Now that the bill is a law the fact that there was such a fight vastly strengthens it. A test case, however, has been carried into the courts.
Of the rules adopted by the various park boards in response to the authority thus granted, those of the Metropolitan Commission may be fairly taken as a type. They prohibit the erection or maintenance of any sign, poster, or advertisement within such distance of the park or parkway, or in such place, as shall render its “ words, figures, or devices . . . plainly visible to the naked eye within such park or parkway.” But from this prohibition they except, on land or building, one advertisement not exceeding fifteen inches by twenty feet, and relating exclusively to the property on which it is placed, “ or to the business thereon conducted, or to the person conducting the same.” These rules, which have been accepted as “ reasonable,” yet safeguard even the borders of the reserved domain.1 In Chicago there had been adopted, two years before, a local ordinance declaring that any billboard within two hundred feet of a park or parkway, and more than three feet square, was a public nuisance, and should be torn down ; and in New York an ordinance to like effect had been passed even earlier. It would seem that the principle, which has had such thorough examination, must apply with equal fairness in other states and cities, and thus that one popularly recognized abuse of advertising may be remedied.
From the thought that advertisements may be properly restricted in certain places in a town, because of the injury they do to a desired æsthetic effect, it is no long step to a belief that the right should be given to the municipality to determine where they may or may not be put, in all parts of the town. To illustrate : a few years ago the London branch of a Chicago firm caused two huge advertisements to be so placed at Dover that they were staringly visible against the background of the cliffs. Although no park scenery was affected, protests appeared in the newspapers, not only of Dover, but of London and other cities ; and a strongly signed petition was presented to the Mayor and Council begging for interference. The officials requested the firm to forego its privilege, and the firm declined. The Mayor and his colleagues then appealed to Parliament, and secured the passage of a bill giving to the Corporation of Dover the power to grant advertisement licenses for such sites as it saw fit, and to require the removal of any advertisements for which there was no license, unless they were exhibited within a window, or gave notice of an entertainment to be held on the land or in the building that bore them. So the step was taken. And the history of its taking at Dover is little more than a repetition of the circumstances which had caused it in 1897 to be taken in Edinburgh, with the result that Edinburgh has been called the pioneer in the municipal regulation of advertisements.
But if the thought that town or city can designate the places on which advertisements may be shown, and can prohibit their erection elsewhere, has seemed to be reached by entirely natural steps, it is not to be supposed that this conception has failed to encounter vigorous opposition from the advertisers. It is too simple and sweeping a panacea to the abuses of advertising for them calmly to submit. Fully to understand this, we should go back a little and note that there have been three interesting movements in progress in the advertising business: (1) Its amazing increase in the last few years, and the multiplication and growing extent of what may be called its abuses; (2) the consequent increase of public interest, concern, and occasional resentment, with no little hostile legislation resulting ; (3) the affiliation of local billboard interests into a national body, for the purpose of more successfully opposing adverse public action.
The line of battle has thus been clearly drawn. The public in a thousand communities recognizes certain developments of advertising as abuses, and is trying to check them, while the advertisers are standing together for what they call their rights. A fourth movement that should develop with us, and for which there is already call, is a similar coördinating of the local public efforts. This has been accomplished in Great Britain, first by the organization of a National Society for Checking Abuses of Public Advertising (“ Scapa ”), and second by the formation of the Parliamentary Amenities Party. The latter is a committee, of which James Bryce is chairman, made up of members of both houses of Parliament, who agree to stand by and stand for the preservation of civic and rural amenities and to oppose unfavorable legislation. To accomplish its purposes, the committee appoints a small sub-committee which keeps in communication with seven societies that exist for the furtherance of one or another phase of these amenities. There are plenty of societies in this country, and the work to be done now is to make possible their concerted action. Until this has been accomplished, the warfare between the public and the advertisers must be a series of guerrilla conflicts which can be of little satisfaction to either side. The narrative also becomes difficult to write, for it is made up from various small specific contests that have to serve as types. These can best be marshaled into order by now imagining ourselves as entering the town.
In the open country “ the enemy ” had gathered in strongest force along the steam road, the trolley road, and highway ; coming into town we have observed that the parks are safe, and that the advertisers are retiring even from park boundaries. But we shall see that in the town there is the hardest fighting. Here the advertisers have most to lose. Such satisfactory conditions as those described in Edinburgh and Dover are exceptional in Great Britain, and are probably without parallel in the United States. Most communities have to deal separately with a large variety of abuses.
Possibly the first to attract attention is the fixture of advertisements to trees. This is done in the country also, but in the city it tends to become a prevalent rather than an occasional evil. There is a state law against it in Massachusetts; in New Hampshire one must have a written permit from the tree warden ; and municipal ordinances against the abuse have become throughout the country far commoner than is their strict enforcement. It is clearly an economic waste to endanger the life of a beautiful tree that has attained its growth only after years by affixing to it posters of doubtful interest to-day and of none to-morrow. The abuse is so palpable that there has been little difficulty about making it illegal ; but the advertisements put on trees are generally small, and public opinion is careless about the law’s enforcement.
Frequently the ordinance designed to protect the tree classes with it the telegraph, telephone, and lighting service pole, though the abuse in this case as far as the public is concerned is much less obvious. But the fixture of posters to a pole is almost as bad for the pole as for the tree, and if an ordinance does not protect it the company to whom the poles belong is likely to require that advertisers keep away. In the larger cities, therefore, this evil — recently so serious — is beginning to be checked.
Advertisements on the trees seemed an abuse so outrageous as to demand immediate attention ; but the billboards that in the country were scattered, now that the town is reached, commence to close in upon us. They line the street where there is vacant land; they are erected even upon roofs ; they are no respecters of fine views, of neighborhoods, of civic dignity, of pretensions to civic pride or stateliness. They may rise billboard upon billboard, two “ decked ” or three; they are of all kinds, — some neat and orderly, and some with torn posters on broken boards, thoroughly disreputable. It is plain that the billboard question of the cities is not one question, but many; and it is here that the guerrilla warfare becomes most in evidence.
There is no public demand that the billboards be utterly suppressed, — only that they be regulated ; and if we are to regulate them we must determine what of their developments may be fairly called abuses. Excessive height certainly is one. Municipal ordinances usually attack this under the building laws, on the plea that hoardings wholly unlimited as to height and dimensions “ might readily become a constant and continuing danger to the lives and persons of those who should pass along the street in proximity to them.” 2 There is, as pointed out in some communities, an added danger from fire.
This effort to limit the height of billboards affords, by the way, some interesting illustrations of the unequal conflict now going on between the united billposters and a public that lacks union. An ordinance was adopted in Buffalo, for example, a few years ago, to limit the height of billboards to seven feet. It was contested, and the battle was carried from court to court, until finally the ordinance was approved by the highest court of the state. The Billposters’ Association, in order to become a foreign corporation and thus come under the jurisdiction of the Federal courts, then obtained incorporation outside of New York, and began injunction proceedings in a United States court to prevent action under the ordinance. By this means long delays were gained, and the fight is now being made for the Buffalo posters by the National Association. This is thoroughly organized, and its system is said to be so complete that it practically controls the situation in every city and town in the United States.
The location of the billboards may be a not less aggravating abuse than excessive height, and it is even more frequent in its annoyance. We have seen how the thought that a city can forbid the placing of billboards in proximity to a park may lead by a natural advance to its claim of the right to determine where they shall be located, in all parts of the town. But the step, if natural, has proved too radical to be taken as yet except on the rarest occasions, and the billposting companies are restricted in their choice of desirable sites only by the easy task of finding a land-owner who is willing to lease to them a strip of property that otherwise probably brings him nothing. It has been many times suggested that a reasonable condition to impose would be the procurement of the consent of the adjacent property holders. A man should not be suffered to do with his property that which his neighbors consider a nuisance. In Chicago this requirement has been put into an ordinance which demands that no billboard be erected on a residence street without the consent of three fourths of the frontage in the block concerned. Another suggested requirement is that the billboards be put back a certain number of feet from the building line, with the result that they shall be visible only when one is directly in front of them, and shall not mar the street vista.
The measures that have been adopted in some foreign cities for the control of advertisements, generally, of course affect hoardings in particular, since these exist expressly for advertisements. They will be touched upon later. Meanwhile it is only fair to say parenthetically that even the billboard, with all its faults, has good points and has improved. A wellbuilt hoarding, with neatly framed posters, may be so much preferable to an abandoned vacant lot as to be by comparison no nuisance. And with the enormous growth and more efficient organization of the advertising business, there are factors naturally at work to remedy some of the more glaring billboard offenses. The hoardings are better constructed; they are kept in repair ; the posters have distinctly improved in artistic character ; it is becoming the custom, in order to secure greater effectiveness, to set each poster within its own frame or moulding; and this, with a standardizing of sizes, tends to lessen somewhat the discordance of the always inharmonious battery. Finally, the advertisers themselves have learned that mere multiplicity may go too far; and now in almost every city there are advertising rights which are leased but not used, because the signs displayed are rendered more valuable through the keeping of neighboring sites vacant. That the best billboard may invite to acts behind it that are contrary to the law, and may be so offensive in itself to a neighborhood as actually to decrease the value of property, is good evidence that the possibilities of advertising abuse are very many in the billboard, and that unless the hoardings are legislated out of existence no general restrictions can guarantee unfailing satisfaction. There will always remain cases to be separately judged. In justice, therefore, it ought to be acknowledged that tiie hoarding is not wholly evil, however fruitful a source of evil ; and that the billboard which is a civic abuse in one place may not be one somewhere else.
Of other advertising developments, the so-called “ sky signs ” are generally recognized in Great Britain as an abuse, many of the corporations having ordinances prohibiting the erection of signs of which the letters, standing clear of a building’s top, show against the sky. This is forbidden even in London. Flashlights and certain kinds of illuminated advertisements are also condemned, on the ground that they might frighten horses ; and the use of vehicles exclusively or principally for the displaying of advertisements is very frequently prohibited. American cities and towns quite commonly go to the extent of prohibiting the stringing of banners across the street, or requiring for the act a special permission that is rarely granted except to political parties. Projecting signs, standing out from building fronts, have so many possibilities of abuse that ordinances almost always hedge them about, determining their minimum height above the sidewalk and their maximum projection and size.
It may be well at this point, lest these and other curbs to the advertiser’s freedom to ply his business how and where he pleases seem too onerous, to ask ourselves just what would be a reasonable ideal in the display of advertisements on the street. For our modern civic art is not impractical. It would not exclude from its dream of the city beautiful the whir and hum of traffic, the exhilarating evidences of nervous energy, enterprise, vigor, and endeavor. It loves the straining, striving, competing, as the most marked of urban characteristics, and in the advertising problem it will feel, not hostility, but the thrill of opportunity. It will recognize evils in the present methods, but will find them the evils of excess and unrestraint, and it will perceive possibilities of artistic achievement by which even the advertising can be made to serve the ends of art dans la rue. As far, then, as abuses are concerned, civic art would predicate its desire for restrictions upon the conception of what the street reasonably ought to be. Any advertising display out of harmony with this conception would be considered an abuse.
There would be required, first, a clear path for travel by walk or road, which means that advertisements must retire to the building line. Second, there would be insistence that no announcement intrude upon the vista of the street. These requirements purport, concretely, that civic art — that is, the art of making cities dignified and beautiful — would prohibit advertisement erections of any kind at the curb or on the sidewalk, and would suffer no public utility, or ornament of the way, to be placarded ; would frown upon projecting signs, and would have no banners hung across the street. It would sweep the street clean of advertisements from building line to building line. And, on the buildings, it would require that there be some respect for the architecture; it would not have advertisements plaster a façade. In this matter it has a positive as well as a negative creed, but that is not part of a discussion of the abuses of advertising.
Of the restrictions thus demanded several have already had mention. In regard to the removal of bulletin boards, signs, and transparencies from a position on the sidewalk, probably the most interesting case for citation is that lately offered by the Merchants’ Association of San Francisco. This is interesting because the prime movers in demanding the ordinance and its rigid enforcement were merchants, — not a few visionary and impractical idealists, but the advertisers themselves; and the action, formally taken after long thought, was that of the association which represented them, and which is one of the strongest commercial bodies in the United States. The ordinance excludes everything except clocks, and refuses to permit any advertisement on these. It should be noted in connection with this that when all the advertisers of a community are subject to the same prohibition, no one is put at a disadvantage ; and that, without restrictions, there may be a competition between advertisers which will prove a very serious abuse to them.
The fixture of posters to monuments and other public ornaments of the way is not attempted in this country; but two years ago it was a serious abuse in Paris. The public utilities are usually protected by ordinance, whether owned by the municipality or public service corporations, and lately there has been an interesting extension of this restriction by its application to railroad structures. Chicago offers an example in an ordinance adopted last fall. It requires that the advertisements on so much of the elevated railroad structures and stations as is not on the company’s own right of way — that is, for instance, on stations built over cross streets — shall be removed. In London advertising on railroad bridges is forbidden, and in Glasgow and many other cities of Great Britain advertisements are not allowed on the outside of the trams. This was an advertising abuse that had become much more serious in England than it ever has become with us. Finally, any advertisements on the public buildings or on the pavements, or the scattering of handbills in the streets which the city is trying to keep clean, may be properly called an advertising abuse that it is utterly inconsistent for the city to allow.
There is philosophically also an essential fitness in the protection by a city of its own property from advertising disfigurement ; for if the community as a body cannot be loyal to a wish for civic dignity and beauty, or does not on its own property set an example, it cannot expect its citizens to be zealous and particular. It has the advantage, too, that it can be frankly loyal to an æsthetic ideal, while the citizens have to show that the advertisement to which they object does injury and is a nuisance. They also are distracted by conflicting interests, and find it difficult to judge impartially of the good or evil of advertisements from the standpoint that the city, in its aloofness, takes. And no other course than the protection of its property is logical for a community that is spending money not merely to keep clean and neat, but to secure positive æsthetic results by maintaining parks and squares, and by erecting handsome public buildings, fountains, and statues.
A grievous mistake, therefore, is made when a town undertakes to advertise its attractions by means of a monster hoarding beside the railroad. This is an abuse of advertising that is growing somewhat in frequency. In the West you will often come to a town with a town-sign ; but the best thing that a town can have is an ideal, and a civic spirit that will work for that ideal. The town-sign reveals, more emphatically than it says anything else, the crudity of the vision which the community has. The condition is sad enough when the great city of New York presents to the stranger on the viaduct of Brooklyn Bridge only a sea of signs ; but he does not think quite as badly of it as he would if the city itself had officially set up the signs, — to show him that it was thriving! He would have then considered it thriving, and nothing better.
Akin, in lack of consistency, to a town’s deliberate and official marring of its beauty by the erection of a hoarding is the permission which associations that exist to uplift communal life sometimes grant to advertisers to use their property. The Academy of Design in New York, having purchased a spacious site for a beautiful new home, let for advertising purposes the boards surrounding its property. These were covered with a huge sign to advertise a five-cent cigar, while on the same premises the society was conducting free art classes in an effort to train the taste of the youth of New York. It is clear that all the advertising abuses are not due to the advertisers. A degree of responsibility rests upon the public itself.
In occasional discouragement, the champions of a better sort of advertising may well ask, now and then, “ Whom shall we trust ? ” This feeling, and, above all, the knowledge of the immense and rapid growth of the business, of its increasing resources, and its efficient organization, have inspired a fear that has led to attempts to control it and restrict it as a whole. Foreign cities and nations, managing this more easily than can the United States, offer a number of interesting examples. France and Belgium have a tax on posters, and such an impost has been proposed in England. It is easily levied by means of stamps, and through the proportioning of the tax to the size of the poster considerable restraint is exercised. The tax also makes it possible for the government to scrutinize the advertisements before they are set up, the law requiring their submission before posting. In France the poster tax brings in something like four millions of francs a year. In the cities of France, Belgium, Germany, and Italy, the posters must be placed on columns or other devices especially prepared for the purpose. These are placed at designated spots, are of a design approved by the municipality, and are frankly artistic in effort.
In New York state a bill was introduced in the Legislature in the winter of 1902, and received influential backing, for the imposition of a stamp tax on posters, the suggested tax being one cent per two square feet, measuring the greatest length by the greatest width. The bill was opposed by the labor and other interests, and failed to pass ; but the introduction of the measure was not a little significant. In Pennsylvania there was enacted last winter a law which makes it necessary for the advertiser to secure the written consent of the owner or tenant upon whose property a sign or poster is attached, and prohibiting altogether the fixture of advertisements (save legal notices or announcements pertaining to the business conducted on the premises) to any property of the state or of any county, township, or city in the state. In Illinois last winter a bill was introduced and valiantly championed which would have given to the officials of the cities, towns, and villages of the state the “ power to license street advertising and billboard companies, and regulate and prohibit signs and billboards upon vacant property and upon buildings advertising other business than that of the occupant.” The measure was fought aggressively by the billboard trust, and at last it failed.
Now these bills are significant because they go to show that in this country also popular attention has been aroused to the abuses of public advertising. Any serious extension of these abuses is likely to provoke an adverse legislation that will be costly to the advertisers. This significance is the more marked when the origin of the bills is examined. Behind the bill which was introduced in New York state was the American Scenic and Historic Preservation Society; the bill that became a law in Pennsylvania was fathered by the American Park and Outdoor Art Association, which has on this subject a standing committee, to whose interesting latest report this paper is much indebted ; the Illinois bill was introduced at the request of the Municipal Art League of Chicago. The public has not yet united, as have the billboard people,—but it has taken the first step in forming itself into organized bodies for the waging of the contest. If any abuse becomes very serious these bodies can be depended upon to act together, if they do not combine. And there are these hopeful elements in the contest: the public does not and will not fight to suppress advertising, but only to restrict it to reasonable proportions ; the advertisers do not want to offend the public, but are bound to respect any genuine popular sentiment. As it is not war to the death, but a mutual adjustment of opinions (which have differed because of different points of view), that is before us, in the just settlement of the advertising problem, mere discussion must help to cure the mistakes on either side.
Finally, there is this to be said: the advertisers can gain their ends in other and unobjectionable ways. In the bare recital of abuses it may have seemed as if there were so many that, should they all be checked successfully, there would be left to the advertiser small chance to proclaim his wares. But that is not true. He would still have opportunities, substituting — with much gain to the community and probably with some to himself — for mere bigness and multiplicity of announcements a quality of attractiveness. There would lie the new competition. He has already learned that emphasis is gained not only by screaming a word, but by pausing before and after its utterance. He is finding it more profitable to put his colors together harmoniously than to shock the eye. He has discovered that if he can entertain and amuse the public with jingles or clever names or well-drawn pictures, he makes more impression than by shouting. Tims advertisements now render many a long ride less tedious than it used to be, and even win for the billboards some friends where before, because of the abuses, all must have been their enemies.
Charles Mulford Robinson.
- The principal contest in regard to this legislation was waged over the point whether the state, if proposing to take from the owner of a piece of land a right that might be valuable (as the display of advertisements), should not take this right by eminent domain and compensate him for its loss, rather than under the police powers without compensation. Following are some extracts from the attorney general’s opinion : —↩
- “ Any rise of private property which materially interferes with the public comfort, except in those cases where the reasonable requirements of the owner afford him justification or excuse, is a nuisance. Noises and odors have always been treated as nuisances, even without legislative adjudication that they are unwholesome. . . .↩
- “ There is no legal reason why an offense to the eyes should have a different standing from an offense to the other organs. To strike the unwilling ear is in principle the same as to catch the unwilling eye. . . .↩
- “ Persons whose property is affected by such restrictions have no right to compensation, because one of the incidents to property is a condition that it shall not be so used as unreasonably to impair the interests of the community. . . .↩
- “ Since the public good justifies the spending of money to produce an æsthetic effect, the court will not hold that a reasonable regulation to preserve the effect for which the public money was spent is beyond the power of the Legislature.”↩
- Another argument brought forward at the hearings was that the principal value of the right to be curtailed had been created by the public as an incident to the establishment of the much sought public pleasure grounds, and that it was proposed to curtail the right only in so far as its exercise interfered with the public purpose which gave rise to its value. The question of compensation has lately had a similar decision in Prussia, where within a few months the parliament has enacted a bill “ to prevent the disfigurement of places remarkable for their natural beauty.” The bill empowers police courts (elective municipal bodies) to prohibit “such advertisement boards and other notices and pictures as disfigure the landscape outside urban districts.” No exception is made for the place or purpose of the sign, as the one criterion is disfiguring effect; and no compensation is allowed. This measure also had very thorough discussion before it was passed.↩
- These words are taken from the opinion written by Justice Martin of the Court of Appeals (New York) in the case of the City of Rochester against Robert West (1900), all the judges concurring.↩