Originally published June 3, 2016
On Wednesday morning, people traveling busy Lincoln Blvd. in Venice could have seen the bus shelter ad pictured at left above while listening on their car radios to news of a UCLA professor being shot to death in his office. Whether or not that grim news would have triggered any reflection upon the propriety of using the city’s public sidewalks for a display of men blasting away with guns is impossible to know.
However, that particular bus shelter ad, just one of many placed around the city to market the upcoming Universal Pictures movie, did generate complaints about its location, across the street from the grounds of an elementary school and a charter high school. In response, the company that contracts with the city to erect and maintain bus shelters and other items of street furniture replaced the guns-a-blazing movie ad with a public service message featuring Smokey the Bear being hugged by a young boy obviously grateful that the iconic ursine has helped prevent yet another forest fire.
Would it be churlish to intrude upon that heartwarming scene by pointing out that last year a total of 2,677 kids in the U.S. were murdered, killed accidentally, or died by committing suicide with guns, and that another 14,822 were injured by guns?
Ads for movies and TV shows with the firing or brandishing of guns are a staple of street furniture and billboard advertising, and often show up near schools, playgrounds, and other places where young people congregate. A few years ago, one showing a sniper firing a rifle appeared on a billboard directly across the street from a Westchester elementary school, and another depicting an actor waving a gun was placed in a bus shelter in front of Venice High School, just steps from where a student was shot and killed the year before.
In those cases, as with the movie ad on Lincoln Blvd., the sign company responded to complaints by replacing the ad. One might ask, however, if putting such ads there in the first place reflected a deficit in corporate responsibility, and if the quick replacement of those ads was more a reflection of the companies’ public relations acumen than an admission of poor judgment.
The city’s 20-year street furniture contract held by a joint venture of Outfront Media and JC Decaux doesn’t prohibit ads that show the shooting or brandishing of guns, and these depictions are a staple of the movie and TV advertising that is a pervasive presence on bus shelters and billboards. The city cannot regulate the content of billboard advertising on private property, and the street furniture contract doesn’t come up for renewal until 2021.
Should—or would—the sign companies voluntarily limit advertising with depictions of guns? What about movie marketing departments and ad agencies, where this advertising is designed? Should—or would—they think about the images that saturate the city’s visual environment for people of all ages and inclinations to see?