They’re in Manning where I talk to friends. They’re in Wentworth where I lunch over readings. They’re strategically placed at the end of corridors, where I have nowhere else to look. They’re everywhere, they never turn off, and their numbers are only growing.
They are electronic billboards, and they’re trying to sell me McDonald’s.
Advertising usually subsidises a free or low-cost service. Commercial radio and free-to-air TV only exist because of advertising. Without ads, we wouldn’t have free access to Facebook, YouTube or even Honi Soit. Advertising money lowers the cost of trains and buses. I’m happy to stare at a couple of ads in exchange for cheap access to goods and services.
The attention-grabbing billboards throughout campus disgust me. They’re not subsidising an expensive service—Manning House and the Wentworth Building ran just fine before these eyesores were introduced. Five or six electronic billboards are not keeping the USU afloat. They’re not subsidising a valuable service, they’re just an easy way to make some extra cash.
Usually, I’m fine with advertising. If the USU makes extra money, it trickles down towards my clubs and societies, my O-Week parties, my Humans vs. Zombies games at the Verge Festival. But these billboards aren’t just passive money-makers. They’re actively extracting and monetising my concentration.
Thomas Wells recently wrote that “advertising imposes costs on individuals without permission or compensation—it extracts our precious attention.” I believe him. Electronic ads distract me from reality. I try to maintain eye contact with a friend over lunch, but my eyes keep wondering over to the billboard behind him. I try to concentrate on my readings, but I can see the six-foot Big Mac glowing and pulsating in the corner of my eye. Human eyes naturally react to movement and intense light. Sure, my rational mind knows the light in the corner is just selling McDonald’s. But evolution has trained our eyes to assess any bright colours moving in our peripherals. We can’t help but look. Whenever the electronic billboard refreshes, part of your brain notices and pays it attention—attention you now can’t direct towards your friends, book or meal.
I wouldn’t even mind if the advertisements were relevant to students. In 2011, Brigid Dixon was elected to USU Board, and one of her policies was the introduction of electronic billboards to advertise USU events and other helpful information for students. I wonder if she’d be disappointed to see what these billboards advertise today—mostly fast food and car insurance. The same crap I see every day on YouTube or in newspapers. But YouTube and newspapers are valuable services subsidised by advertising. Manning House is already kept in business by gigs, bars and cafes. There is no need for these liquid crystal monstrosities.
Every physical and digital space is slowly being plastered by ads. Electronic billboards are the worst of all ads, because they cannot be effectively ignored. Sitting down in Wentworth does not mean I consent to have my attention monetised. I’m not encouraging anyone to smash these billboards. But if you do, I’ll applaud.