You can get pounds 2,000 a year for the privilege of having an enormous poster stuck to the side of your house. Bully for the end-of-terrace home-owner. What about the rest of us?
Returning from a trip out of town, urban depression sets in at that spot on the M4 where the billboards start. Here we go again. Goodbye free thought and carefree mind, hello product placement, right inside your noddle.
Advertising billboards are so huge, so intrusive, and most frighteningly, so absolutely accepted. Only when I have been away, in places where roads are lined by trees or fields or gardens, do I remember that I live in a gigantic catalogue where every decent-sized wall is a page I cannot turn. Why can't my poor mind be left alone with its own thoughts instead of being invaded by images others want to put there?
I'm not complaining that London is full and crowded: I love the overheard chat and the shop displays and the buskers and the street hawkers and the car stereos. All those belong to individuals going about their daily mucky city business. What I hate is the corporate invasion of my mind. I know clever people sitting on leather sofas are paid a fortune to think up ways to make me spend money I can't afford on things I don't want or need.
When they do it in their right and proper place I don't mind: it finances the programme I want to watch on TV or the articles in the papers and magazines I choose to read. I can turn the telly off or shut the magazine if I don't feel like being advertised at.
I can't, however, walk around the place without having to think about that poor man with his underpants full of ice. Every block or three I find myself confronted by the idea that he must be suffering from some terrible inflammatory disease of the parts. Every traffic jam I sit in, I have to look at pictures of cars trying desperately to appear desirable sexy goers rather than dirty log-jammed poison-mongers. I am constantly being blackmailed by insurance companies threatening me with terrible things that might be happening to my home while I'm out. I conduct fantasy phone calls in my head: I ring the directors and say: 'I don't want to be reminded of venereal diseases] Cars are horrible whatever you say] It's none of your business what insurance I have] Leave me alone]
Outdoor advertising is a pounds 300m a year business of which pounds 193m is in roadside advertising. So cui bono? Billboard contractors, property owners selling space, advertisers, advertising agencies. Why should they? The streets are ours, and our minds are ours. Should we not get something back? Put a huge tax on billboards, I say, and put the money towards mending holes in the street or something useful.