Billboard nation

When 1500 parliamentarians from Asia, Europe, and the Americas converge in Manila today for the 112th General Assembly of the InterParliamentary Union (IPU), what first images will they have of the Philippines?

From the moment they step out of the Ninoy Aquino International Airport, they will see a nation hopelessly scarred by billboards.  As they pass Metro Manila’s slums, they will form an image of an impoverished people drowning in advertisements for material goods they can only fantasize about but will likely never acquire in their lifetime. They will also note the urgent signs and streamers that Filipino politicians have put up to keep in touch with their constituents: “Congratulations to the graduates of 2005” and “This project was made possible by the joint efforts of President So-and-so, Congressman So-and-so, and Mayor So-and-so.”  Our visitors will think they have come upon a picture-book society that equates economic growth with consumption-fixation, and governance with political promotion.

We like to think we have a beautiful country.  But over the years we have done everything possible to make it ugly and unlivable.  Its overall shabbiness directly conveys not just our poverty but our loss of pride and self-esteem as a people.  EDSA, Metro Manila’s principal corridor, is possibly the most poorly maintained city avenue in all of Asia.  Its surface, an unsightly skin of cement and asphalt, conveys at once a terrible image of the caliber of our road engineers and a graphic picture of the extent of government corruption and neglect.

The 1986 People Power Uprising gave EDSA a touch of history. Many of our visiting parliamentarians will probably want to see that patch of the highway where it all began.  They will need to use their imagination to visualize what we have buried. Today EDSA is nothing more than a long corridor through which one can see a billboard.  We are indeed a strange people.

If our public officials think they have made commuting in the city more bearable by allowing outdoor advertising companies to clutter both sides of our major thoroughfares with outsized billboards, they ought to have their heads examined.  These are forms of sensory assault that cannot be turned off.  They are, as someone put it, “the last unavoidable medium.”  They endanger motorists and they slow down traffic.  But more importantly, they degrade the landscape.

Upholding the cause of aesthetic regulation, Harvard Law School Dean Roscoe Pound wrote:  “Beauty may not be queen, but she is not an outcast beyond the pale of protection or respect.  She may at least shelter herself under the wing of safety, morality, or decency.”

Public highways were built with taxpayers’ money; they were meant for transportation, not for advertising.  In the US where citizens’ groups in various states have opposed the abuse of the landscape by outdoor off-premise advertising, the owners of the space on which these giant poster panels are located routinely invoke the inherent rights of private property. The courts however have consistently upheld the rights of citizens and declared billboard advertising in crucial locations a form of public nuisance.  Detailed ordinances regulating billboards are now part of the law in many states.  And in at least four states – Maine, Vermont, Alaska, and Hawaii – there is a total ban on billboards.  These are places whose scenic beauty is the main reason tourists come to visit.

A foreign guest’s first impressions of a country are typically of its natural landscape and infrastructure.  The former shows what has been preserved of Nature’s gifts and shielded from the greed of commerce and the evils of government.  The latter showcases the industry of generations. One wonders what kind of mastery over these islands our billboard economy suggests to our visitors.  A nation’s heritage cannot be invented or made presentable overnight. Discerning guests can tell at once what is phony and what is real, what is suffered and what gives people pleasure and pride of place.

Because of the carpet bombing that took place towards the end of World War II, Manila is no longer the beautiful Hispanic city it once was.  But its natural beauty can easily be recovered by peeling off the facade of superficial modernity that the billboard industry has plastered upon it.  The splendor of Manila’s sunset is undiminished. Thank God the billboards have not yet encroached on the shoreline of Roxas Boulevard.

By now we should realize that the exquisite beauty of our country resides not only in our people but also in our natural landscape.  This is a land blessed by bright tropical weather which brings out the magnificence of our countryside.  An hour’s ride out of the metropolis, either going South or North, brings the traveler to a magical place of verdant farms and majestic mountains.  The newly rebuilt North Luzon Expressway, notwithstanding the phenomenal rise in toll that the operator has started to collect, is truly a world-class highway that has made Central Luzon’s fabulous towns very accessible.

Traversing that portion of the highway leading to the Candaba viaduct is sheer pleasure.  On a clear day, a flock of languid egrets cuts across mystical Mt. Arayat on the horizon.  It is a rare calming moment that is however rudely interrupted by the sudden appearance of a wall of billboards.  I often wonder why we allow a few people to do this to our country.

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