In September 2006, the mayor of São Paulo passed the so-called “Clean City Law” that outlawed the use of all outdoor advertisements, including on billboards, transit, and in front of stores. Within a year, 15,000 billboards were taken down and store signs had to be shrunk so as not to violate the new law. Outdoor video screens and ads on buses were stripped. Even pamphleteering in public spaces has been made illegal. Nearly $8 million in fines were issued to cleanse São Paulo of the blight on its landscape. Seven years on, the world’s fourth-largest metropolis and South America’s most important city remains free of visual clutter and eye sore that plagues the majority of cities around the world.
When the law was passed, it triggered wild alarm among city businesses and advertisement groups. Critics worried that the advertising ban would entail a revenue loss of $133 million and 20,000 people would lose jobs. Others predicted that the city would look like a bland concrete jungle with the ads removed.
“I think this city is going to become a sadder, duller place,” said Dalton Silvanom, the lone councilman to vote against the law, and who (unsurprisingly) is in the advertising business. “Advertising is both an art form and, when you’re in your car or alone on foot, a form of entertainment that helps relieve solitude and boredom,” Silvanom added.
Despite the forebodings, São Paulo’s economy didn’t run aground although the city did look alien and war-torn for a few months following the tear down. The breakneck speed at which the law was enacted caused the city to resemble a battlefield strewn with blank marquees, partially torn-down frames and hastily painted-over storefront facades.
In a survey conducted in 2011 among the city’s 11 million residents, 70 percent found the ban beneficial. Unexpectedly, the removal of logos and slogans exposed previously overlooked architecture, revealing a rich urban beauty that had been long hidden. “My old reference was a big Panasonic billboard,” said Vinicius Galvao, a reporter with Folha de São Paulo, Brazil’s largest newspaper, in an interview with NPR. “But now my reference is an art deco building that was covered [by the massive sign]. So you start getting new references in the city. The city’s now got new language, a new identity.”
Photographer Tony de Marco documented the transformation the city underwent in 2007 in a sequence of images published on Flickr.
Sao Paulo isn’t the only city to have banned outdoor advertisements. Bans on billboards exist in other parts of the world, such as Vermont, Alaska, Hawaii, and Maine in the US, as well as some 1,500 towns. In Europe, the Norwegian city of Bergen does the same and many others have imposed severe restrictions on billboards or declared no-billboard zones within the city.