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Noomi Mehta

MD | 27 May 2004

The public interest litigation that hit out at hoardings was actually fanned by newspapers. It is ironical, though, that newspapers have used hoardings most extensively to advertise themselves.

Rina Mukherji interviews Noomi Mehta, Managing Director of Selvel Advertising, on the public interest litigation agaisnt hoardings and its ramifications.

Q. In view of the recent hue and cry against hoardings, and similar such problems faced by outdoor advertising agencies in various cities from time to time, do you think outdoor advertising needs to reinvent itself?

But outdoor advertising has been continually reinventing itself. Look at the array of lighted kiosks, gantries, monopoles, street illuminations and traffic signals we have today. We have digital printing technology too. Why should the public be denied a visual communication medium just because politicians feel against it? How do you communicate to put your message across in a country where 60 per cent of our population is illiterate? This is large format advertising, where a public interest message like family planning is immediately understood in terms of an image.

The issue is something that has always been raked up by newspapers who have always been vying for a piece of the cake. The public interest litigation that hit out at hoardings was actually fanned by newspapers. It is ironical, though, that newspapers have used hoardings most extensively to advertise themselves.

Q. Will the controversy reduce the number of sites normally allocated to outdoor advertisers?

The government does not want hoardings removed, because they earn crores of rupees from them. Sometime ago, the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC) wanted all hoardings removed from the wetlands. But, now, at least 100 new sites have been allotted at the edge of the roads in the area by the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority (KMDA).

The Mayor may shout hoarse about visual obstruction, but if you look at the facts, you will find a sizeable number of new sites that have come up this very year(2004)in the central business district.

Q. What do you say to the charge of visual obstruction which hoardings are accused of?

Tell me, what do you exactly mean by visual obstruction? Yes, I would not like the view outside my office window, which overlooks a lake and a pretty garden to be obstructed. Yet, it is not as if anything or everything is obstructed. In New York, there are no hoardings at Central Park. But hoardings lend sophistication to Times Square, where a million people converge on New Year's eve to partake of the vitality and excitement. Remove the hoardings from Times Square and it will lose its basic nature. Ditto for Piccadilly Circus, which gets its distinctive character from the hoardings lining it. Visual obstruction is something that needs to be examined and regulated by the authorities- something they have failed hopelessly at.

When the Kolkata Mayor talks of removing signs from the airport to the city, which incidentally falls in an area outside his jurisdiction, I would like to ask him-what looks better, bastis or signs? Honestly, I feel, politicians should stop playing politics, and there will be a lot of improvement that shall follow.

Of course, I am all for reasonable regulation. I had myself presented 10 different papers to the Kolkata Municipal Corporation (KMC), along with technical specifications on how to deal with signs on roads. But, nothing has come of it. Look at Delhi. Hoardings have been banned on the roads. Hoardings can only grace public utilities like toilets, railway stations and bus shelters. Yet, I am prepared to go along with it.

Q. But the weight of hoardings can severely damage heritage buildings or prevent people from admiring their architecture.

Tell me what is more attractive to gaze at? An old, dilapidated structure, or a brilliant hoarding!?!!

Yes, if you are keen to protect a heritage site, you can ask me to fence it around, or help in its maintenance. In return, you can give me the site for free. This can work fine both ways. Honestly, the will is lacking to think up such an arrangement.

Q. But isn't the attitude to hoardings the same everywhere?

Generally, yes. The attitude has always been step-motherly. Outdoor advertising is always been treated like a football, to be kicked around as people please. But then, Bangalore and Hyderabad are modern cities. Monopoles are encouraged there. Everything is transparent. A proposal sent is immediately acknowledged and permission granted within the stipulated time.

Q. What about the objection to obscene ads on the ground of them causing serious accidents at busy intersections?

We had studies conducted on this subject in Delhi and Kolkata by independent research groups (School of Planning &Architecture in Delhi and Indian Institute of Social Welfare & Business Management in Kolkata), and no connection was found whatsoever between obscene ads and the occurrence of accidents. Accidents occur because people drive badly. In that case, you would have to remove everything that looks good. Does that make any sense?

In fact, a study done abroad found that hoardings on state highways actually prevent accidents, by breaking the monotony. Miles of highways have a hypnotic effect on the mind, causing drivers to doze off. The visual excitement of a glow sign or colourful hoarding infuses life into the surroundings, causing the person to be jolted alert.

Q. So what do you foresee the future of outdoor advertising to be?

LED panels, full moving pictures and television screens could be the order of the day. There are ten gigantic screens at Times Square; I do not see why we cannot have at least one in every metropolis here.

Displays, I feel, will be more utilitarian. For instance, we have done about 40 signals in central Kolkata, and maintain the same in return of our displays. The foot overbridge from Lake Town to Salt Lake across VIP road in Kolkata has been done by Selvel, in return of advertising display. We had also suggested two over-bridges to Salt Lake stadium, but the final sanction is yet to come through.

Thus, display combined with utility such as road indicators, will be the order of the day. We are ourselves keen to put in our money on infrastructural projects such as traffic island monopoles. The landscaping and maintenance could be mine, while I use the monopole for the display.

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