The Battle of the Billboards

Russians are usually pretty good about finding loopholes and getting around laws and other “rules.” A good example is the “ruthless and chaotic” advertising laws in the capital…

During the summer, sneaky little promotion advertisers slither through the streets of Moscow, stopping at areas where there are a lot of people (entrances to the subway, near parks, major street sidewalks in the center, bus stops), throw down a piece of cardboard carved with words and numbers onto the sidewalk, pull out their can of spray paint, quickly spray, grab the piece of cardboard and move on their way.

These are sidewalk ads with everything from yoga lessons, translation services, palm reading, restaurants, and the list just goes on and on.

Official ads, the ones you see as billboards or banners on the streets, are difficult to place on Moscow streets because it’s pretty bureaucratic with all kinds of things to sign, rules to follow, committees to oversee and control (including a linguistic committee so as not to offend anyone and that the ad is in proper Russian) and very expensive. A Russian friend of mine who works in the business told me the average cost of advertising on billboards is just over $500 per square meter per month. Multiply that by say four meters so that you have a good-sized billboard and you’re already looking at $2,000 for one billboard.

Of course it’s cheaper to hire someone for 500 rubles a day (around $20) to go around and spray paint your advertisement on the city’s sidewalks. Additionally, there are no laws against advertising “on sidewalks.” There are laws “on advertising,” but this little scheme doesn’t fall into that category because the law describes things like banners, billboards, and facades of buildings. The law that these sidewalk ads do fall into is “graffiti.” If you’re caught doing graffiti, then this is an administrative offense that one pays a small fine for (around 100 rubles). And the police can only fine the individual doing the graffiti if caught, not the company. Why not the company? Obvious: “the company had no idea that hooligans were out painting their name and phone number out on the streets.” That hooligan is not on their official payroll, so there is no way of officially connecting him with the company. I’m sure the individual is reimbursed in the end after paying the fine though.

So during the summer there are huge collections of ads all over the sidewalk and you are no longer looking around, but reading the sidewalk under your feet.

What’s left for the Moscow authorities do? You won’t believe it…they paint over the top of the ads, slap on some grey or white sticky paint in a neat little square over the top of the ad, or just paint over the top of the number. City workers go out with a roller and bucket of paint and just put the grey goo over the top, spread it around a bit and move on.

The problem here is that spray paint does not leave any marks on the soles of your shoes, the sticky grey goo does and you end up tracking it over the next few yards, leaving your footprints along your path. And if the city workers have just destroyed a whole patch of ads, then you find yourself skipping and hopping down the pavement, reminiscent of playing hopscotch as a kid.

And what do you think happens next? The advertising hooligans paint over that nice neat white or grey square with a new promotion. But now they have a nice clean background and not that dirty asphalt. This continues in an endless cycle until the first snows begin falling in Moscow.

My advice to the Moscow authorities: Just leave the ads there, they won’t paint over the top of another ad! Or maybe adjust your laws? Nah, that’d be too difficult! 

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