Big Billboard Is Watching

The High Court of Justice was recently exposed to quite a radical lecture on the negative influence of billboards on the public. The group that spoke out against the advertising industry, saying that our awareness and senses are being corrupted by billboards and other means of advertising, was not a social welfare organization or a philosopher - it was the State Prosecutor's Office. That office was asked to reply to the Nur Advertising company's request to be allowed to display its billboards on the Ayalon Highway for another six months; Nur's appeal to the High Court came after the Tel Aviv District Court ruled last year that the company had to remove its billboards by the end of 2007.

The Tel Aviv District Court had ruled in favor of the Green Action (Peula Yeruka) group, which submitted an appeal through the Clinic for Social Justice in Tel Aviv University. The group claimed that posting signs is against the Road Affixing of Signs Law and constitutes damage to the landscape and a security risk. Nur requested an extension from the High Court, claiming that the Knesset should be allowed to introduce a change in the law to allow the signs to be displayed.

But the State Prosecutor's Office did not make do with explanations about the illegality of displaying billboards. The acting director of High Court appeals, attorney Dina Zilber, based her remarks on a leading anti-advertising guru, Kalle Lasn, the Canadian author of the book "Culture Jam," which offers a harsh attack on consumer culture, corporations and advertising's far-reaching influence on everyday life.

In her opening, Zilber cited a speech by Kevin O'Leary, the president of the marketing firm The Learning Company: "If you can 'get' children by the age of 2 and target them incessantly between the ages of 3 and 8, they become lifelong consumers of your product." Afterwards, even before she replied to Nur regarding its claims about the need to allow the completion of the legislative procedures, Zilber continued along the same line and presented the essence of Lasn's philosophy as "food for thought" for the judges.

According to Lasn, the instant culture of commercial messages took place so consistently and unremittingly that we were not sufficiently alert to notice the absurdity of the situation, says Zilber, quoting "Culture Jam." In his book, Lasn says advertisements are no longer limited to the usual places: buses, billboards and stadiums. Every place on which our eyes might light is now a place that, according to corporate America, can and must be filled with a logo or some commercial message.

Not only do ads appear inside a hole on a golf course, on an ATM screen and on a gas pump, Lasn says that when you're driving in an open area, wheat fields are interrupted at regular intervals by huge billboards; a few years ago marketing people began to install eye-level notice boards in men's bathrooms on campuses, above the urinals.

From the ad firm's point of view, it's a brilliant maneuver: Where can the guy look?

Lasn says that when he first heard about it, he was furious - one of the last remaining vestiges of privacy had also been enlisted to benefit corporations.

No escape

"Advertising garbage inundates us from all directions, and we even enjoy every moment, and don't have any place to escape," says Zilber, continuing to cite Lasn.

Lasn says that in moments of quiet, he often used to hear the opening strains of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony playing inside his head - now he sings the song the boy in the hotdog commercial sings.

Lasn is a veteran activist in the Culture Jamming movement, which seeks to bring down the existing power structures and make far-reaching changes in our lifestyle ahead of the 21st century. This is a broad coalition of social, environmental and political activists, one of whose many activities was the establishment of the Web site, which fights against the advertising industry, among other things.

Their agenda includes a change in the enslaving consumer habits of the residents of the world's wealthy societies, which is fueled by the advertising industry through what Lasn describes as post-modern ostentation. In another place he has written that advertisements are the most common and venomous spiritual pollutants.

The use of Lasn's philosophy came as a pleasant surprise to the members of Green Action and their attorneys; it reminded them somewhat of what author and then Knesset member S. Yizhar said when the Road Affixing of Signs Law was passed about 40 years ago.

"This law is therefore called upon to place a limit on abandoning open spaces to ugliness, so that the fields and hills will not be stained as well with objects foreign to them," said Yizhar. "And so a person will be permitted to find around him only a clean horizon as it is, clean fields as they are. The two sides of the road are in effect the large and free garden of every single person."

Nur's attorney, Gadiel Blustein, responded to Zilber with an angry attack. "According to the state, it is opposed to billboards since they brainwash innocent citizens, heaven forfend," wrote Blustein. "With all due respect to the state, it has no right or permission to invade areas of values and opinion, and it will not serve as a policeman over thoughts, opinions or advertisements.

These things go to the root of the Israeli experience and the undersigned is simply unable to understand how the hand of the author of the reply did not tremble. Let us also mention that the state that is so concerned about the brain of its innocent civilians also benefits quite nicely from the money it receives from television franchises. It is a great shame that the personal views of the author of the response are infiltrating court documents."

A question of ethics

Afterward, Blustein referred directly to Lasn, claiming it is easy to understand that the state wanted to adorn its response with philosophy and to add an abstract, perhaps philosophical depth.

But he claims it is very regrettable that the state did not check Lasn's background; had it done so, it would have discovered that Lasn is at the margins of Western society, and has acquired a group of admirers "who worship him in the way of lunatics at the margins of society."

Even worse, according to Blustein, Lasn is a blatant anti-Semite, who claims Israel initiated the second Iraq War and is oppressing neighboring nations, and that the Jews are taking up an undeserved place in American politics.

Blustein is referring, among other things, to the fact that Lasn conducted an investigation of the identity of prominent American neocons and specifically pointed out that half were Jews.

But Zilber had no intention of apologizing. She pointed out that the ethical position that she presented was reflected in the aims of the Road Law and in the opinions expressed by the MKs who drafted it.

"Values is not a dirty word, even if someone's profits are somewhat reduced," she pointed out.

The state wrote in a written response: "The ruling is meant to be observed and the signs are meant to be removed by December 31, 2007. The clock is ticking!"

The High Court agreed to this demand, and last week rejected Nur's request.

A few days later, the removal or concealment of billboards began. The director of Green Action, Avi Levi, said he planned to turn to the advertising agencies and the local authorities in whose jurisdiction the billboards were displayed to demand they remove all of them completely. Otherwise, he said, they will be guilty of contempt of court.