For those who have detected a stark change in the urban skyline of Lahore, but have not been able to put a finger on it, it is the gradual diminish of the massive billboards that have long cascaded around the main streets and avenues of Lahore. The recent decline in repainting and upkeep of these large scale publicity images is due to a decision made earlier this year by the Parks and Horticulture Authority to withdraw all no objection certificates previously awarded as licenses to erect and maintain billboards in various urban zones.
Apparently put into action by the Chief Minister for a clearer cityscape, this policy finds most major billboards rusting into decay, while some have already been torn down. As a result, the billboards in the Cantonment and Defence areas have become more lucrative due to a separate oversight body. While this decision has struck a huge blow to the country's overinflated advertising industry, one wonders if such a project in urban aesthetics would open a Pandora's box of irregularities and deregulations.
Initially it seems odd and almost unsettling to transit through certain parts of the city without being overpowered by the sheer overbearing impact of publicity images plastered all over the main intersections; the nostalgic would lament that the colors, text, and catchy logos added to the character of the city.
Indeed, all cities have a unique character; in Lahore that character had almost become synonymous with expansive billboards jutting out of the infrastructure in all different directions: calligraphy running down the walls, English written in Urdu, and Urdu transliterated in English, together with huge spelling faux pas proudly held up to unimaginable heights, and, of course, images ranging from families and cooking oils to women on mattresses in sultry poses. We have free markets, deregulation, and rent-seeking behaviour to thank for this boisterous explosion of urban infrastructural mass media that some would argue quite aptly represents what Lahore and Lahoris are all about.
That said, it would be evident that we've come a long way from the grandiosity of the Badshahi Masjid, a jewel for the Mughals, or the Mall Road, the pride of the British. Historically, the look and feel of the city would be an expression of the dominant force within that city. Administrators would take pride in giving the city their personal touch. Then how did we get from there to here? Well, if the Emperor was sovereign during Mughal times, and the bureaucratic institution was administrator par excellence during the British Raj, then it is a natural conclusion that the corporation reigns supreme in the times that have happened to grace us. With ever flashier modes of urban display, LED screens, and plasma projection units, and millions and millions in advertising budgets, our cities will indeed become the mass-communication extravaganza that the corporate identity of Lahore would imagine.
Unlike the British, the Mughals and the Sikhs, and whoever else has laid claim to Lahore in the past, the corporations don't act on a unitary urban aesthetic. Rather, their mode of operation is chaotic at best, as they respond to each other with bigger, more flashy messages to induce those driving by in an instance. Nothing speaks more loudly of our reclaim of British areas of architectural finesse like Tollington and Davis Road than the sprawling colourful signboards, mounted all over shop edifices.
As shop owners and those in possession of lucrative property jump into this frenzy, the city begins to emulate a glamour magazine with a 20:80 content-publicity ratio. Questions of taste and aesthetics then get bundled up with the heavy handed marketing departments' and ad agencies' assessment of the mood at large.
Of course, appearances count more than truisms in these parts. At the end of the day, it isn't accuracy they're going for, but sensation. One would argue that the two elements unmistakably present at all major traffic signals, i.e. beggars and billboards (the subject of many snapshots clicked by bemused foreigners) represent the huge disconnect between appearance and reality that is being fed to the masses on a daily basis. How does the large shampoo billboard relate to the urban condition of the rickshaw driver? How does the supermodel superimposed on a whitening cream ad relieve the frustrations of the pubescent youth on a disappointingly fruitless prowl? It is quite evident that the publicity billboards that seek to attract all attention at every stoplight and flyover constantly bombard the inhabitants of the city with the chasm that exists between reality and product-oriented idealism.
On a note aside from urban aesthetic, it could be argued that large-scale billboards provide a certain functionality in creating a space for advertising, which is accessible to everyone from the laborer trudging on his cycle to the Prado-swerving elite. But even then the advertisement only alludes to accurate information at best. The cell phone companies, instead of providing less confusing means of putting forth rate plans, and prices, engage in crude sparring battles of who has the more chic celebrity poster-child.
It would be interesting to probe how many people actually choose their brands based on which celebrity is endorsing what. At the end of the day, with respect to this ubiquitous medium of communique, it could also be argued that having soft drinks and prepaid cellphone brands sponsor every other khokha actually creates mass dishevelment, an overpowering of the senses, without putting forth any comprehensible message whatsoever.
Shahbaz Sharif may not be the first to take on the daunting task of cutting down superfluous public advertisement, given that radicalised religious groups sometimes take it on themselves to smear the female form depicted on some billboards with black paint. Still, the CM should be commended for having a broader vision which goes beyond short-term gains. But a lot more needs to be done to craft a visible change in the appearance of our cities and how they represent their inhabitants.
For one, certain areas need to be given historical status, where shop owners should abide by strict zoning standards. The thinking to allow billboards only in commercial areas is on target, since certain parts of the city would cater better to such advertising. With strict zonal regulation, certain limited areas could come alive with commercial expression in accordance with the character of these areas. At the end of the day, whatever graces the skyline of the city should at some level be in accordance with how the people of that locality see themselves.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.