Calling Bullshit on Illegal Ads


Here’s the deal: There’s a company called National Public Advertising Outdoor that puts up advertisements on sides of buildings and other public places in New York and other big cities. The ads they put up are illegal. They do not have a permit. They city is not getting paid. Instead, they pay the landlords of the buildings they use. Citizens are forced to look at advertising all over NYC because this company has illegally plastered their ads all over town. For whatever reason, the city looks the other way and rarely cracks down on them.

This spring, Jordan from The Public Ad Campaign blog organized a massive grassroots retaliation against the illegal billboards. See our coverage here and here. In short, an army of artists whitewashed 120 different illegal billboards and replaced them with art. NPA Outdoor was furious and sent out teams to put their ads back up in a matter of hours. A few artists even got arrested after being caught in the act by police.

Since the takeover, NPA Outdoor has added a new notice to all of their billboard sites. As you can see in the photo above, it reads, “Coming soon to this location: a chance to win these posters and other prizes inside.” They are trying to find a loophole in their bullshit illegal business. It’s illegal for a landlord to put an advertisement on the side of his building, but it’s not illegal to put up a sign advertising products that are for sale inside. So by putting up this bullshit notice that claims you can win the posters inside the store, NPA is trying to get around the law. They’re smart to add the phrase “coming soon,” because if you go in ANY of the stores that have this notice, you’ll find that there are no posters. It’s all bullshit. I’ve personally asked people in a half-dozen stores for more information on “winning” the posters and every clerk has looked at me like I was an idiot. They had no idea what I was talking about, because there is no drawing for posters. It’s bullshit.

Recently Posterchild and Jason Eppink set out to call NPA Outdoor on their bullshit. The duo replaced NPA’s notice with one of their own.



Why won’t the city crack down on New York’s true graffiti problem?

21 thoughts on “Calling Bullshit on Illegal Ads”

  1. The wall belongs to the landlord…quite honestly if the landlord doesn’t care it shouldn’t really matter…

  2. Now it makes sense why I was seeing those ‘ask inside’ signs in places where the inside was ambiguous

  3. You guys post stories about people putting up illegal things all the time. Just because you think it’s “art” doesn’t make it legal.

    For example,

    And my favorite act of hypocrisy,

    Stop being hippocrates. Let the city worry about it if they really care

    1. @ Daver:
      There’s a difference between putting up things that make people smile while going about their daily business and putting up things that only add to the commercial images we are already forced to mass consume every single day.
      And please do not ask people to refrain from being a physician living during the 5th century BC on a Greek island. Individuals have the right to decide what they will do with their own life, Daver.
      (I’m sorry, but I couldn’t help becoming a little bit socratastical here…)

  4. @stellacat,

    No, it does matter. You can’t just put a billboard on the side or your home or business. Billboards are regulated (and taxed) by the city. These billboards are illegal. Period. Also, of course the landlord “doesn’t care”– he’s being paid!


    Yeah, it’s even more absurd to see the signs on billboards that are put up on fences around parking lots, etc. There’s not even an “inside” to go ask about winning those beautiful advertisements.

  5. @stellacat,

    As someone with libertarian instincts, I’m sympathetic to where you’re coming from.

    However, there are many laws restricting what a landowner can or cannot do with their land, especially in dense urban areas where their actions on their own property affect a lot of people. There are many compromises we pay to live around other people, and I expect you would agree with many of them.

    For example, you can’t modify buildings that are deemed historical landmarks, blast loud music at all hours, or release harmful chemicals.

    Public advertising isn’t innocuous building decoration; it’s well-funded and highly engineered to modify the way you think. It frames discourse, influences language and behavior, and sets cultural standards and values.

    Advertising is POWERFUL, and a city that values its unique history, culture, and culture makers – like NYC – is right to regulate its visual landscape, just like it regulates other gray areas in the realm between public and private.

    Third-party sign regulations are already on the books! We’re just asking NYC to enforce its own laws and reap MILLIONS OF DOLLARS in fines in the process.

    1. New York Constitution Every citizen may freely speak, write and publish his senti-
      ments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of
      that right; and no law shall be passed to restrain or a-
      bridge the liberty of speech or of the press.
      Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press.
      I do not agree that this public art is “illegal.” Tacky, maybe. An insidous plot to disrupt our neural networks maybe. But not illegal, under the constitutions.

  6. @Daver,

    No one deleted your comment. It was caught in the spam filter because you included lots of links (which is what spam comments mostly are.) I approved it and it’s above.

    I happen to think to think that art in public places is a great thing, and advertising in the public space is not. Sorry you disagree.

  7. Thanks for approving, sorry for the confusion.

    I’m not questioning whether or not art in public places is a good thing, or if advertising in public spaces is a good thing. That is subjective to each person.

    What I am saying is that one of your big arguments against advertisements is that they are illegal. So much so that it is the only thing you bolded in your post. If that is your criteria, then a bunch of things covered on this blog fall under the same scrutiny.

    Don’t get me wrong, I love this blog and most of the content covered, I just found it funny that you would object on the basis of legality when really it seems like it is just a preference thing.

  8. Now I know what Charlie sounds like when he’s mad! I love it.

    @Daver – I think Jason, Charlie, and I all disagree with the premise of your argument, that art and advertising are the same.

    They’re not the same. We’re not like nike, or apple, or coke, or miller. We work on a different scale. We have different motivations, intentions, messages, and resources behind us. These differences are crucial.

    The law also treats us differently – if you’re a corporate criminal putting up ads in public space, you barely get a fine. You can be a repeat offender and base your entire business model on it. If you’re an “art criminal” (for lack of a better term) well… you know what this city does to graffiti artists. They arrest them, jail them, and charge them crazy fines relative to your income.

    So, I think art and advertising are not the same – but if you still think so, then let’s agree that the legal enforcement should be the same too. Let’s jail the advertising industry at Rikers like we do graffiti artists. Let’s get clean up crews to take regularly take this stuff down. Let’s get Peter Vallone Jr. to grandstand in the media about how illegal advertising is destroying our city. What do you think?

  9. @stellacat – Honestly – living in a community means a constant compromise as to how we share our visual environment, just as much as our physical one. Being bombarded by advertisement is a one sided compromise, with companies demanding that we put up with it, become saturated by it, forget about it, subconsciously be educated by it, and go on purchasing and consuming things without being conscious about why we want them in the first place.
    @Daver – I understand your point, but the artists intention is to subvert the process I mentioned above, and to reduce it to a question of legality is naivety for arguments sake.
    Another point I would like to make – How many tons of paper is wasted in advertising movies that people would already go to see. Why do I need to see 200 images of Brad Pitt on one wall, instead of one? This kind of advertising is wasteful, and companies that disregard our dwindling resources should be protested and punished.

  10. @Daver,

    I guess the reason the illegality of the ads is bolded and stressed in this post is due to the fact that I’d say 99% of the 8 million plus people in this city are not aware of that fact. Everyone assumes, as I did for the first 7 years I lived here, that these types of ads are legal just like any other billboard. I was shocked and angered when I found out they were not. Had they been legal I would have just thought they were lame and annoying. Now that I know they are illegal it makes me angry. Why wouldn’t the city crack down on this visual blight? Or at the very least profit from it???

    It’s no surprise that street art is unauthorized and often illegal. No one needs to be educated on that. I know it is subjective, but I see street art as a positive force in our community and advertisements as a negative. So the fact that the positive is often removed / cracked down on and the negative is allowed to exist pisses me off.

    And I guess what really pisses me off more than anything is this bold-faced bullshit tactic of acting like the posters are actually available inside the buildings.

  11. <– looks like the graffiti is being handled.

    Add me to the list of people who think that the landlords have a right to decide what gets put on their buildings, and the list of people thinking it is hypocritical to remove content that the landlords agreed to, and replace it with vandalism.

    @Steve, the only difference between these ‘artists’ and the advertisers is the advertisers have permission from *someone* to put their content there.

    I never understood how people can defend criminals and cry about how they get punished for destroying other’s property against their wishes, and make things look like ass while they are at it.

  12. @RamboGoddam Are you really that bad with economics? With the ads, they are *paying* to put those up. That means that the person they are paying, landlords for instance, have extra money. This means they can have lower costs on other goods and stay competitive. Many cities defray the costs of public transit this way, yet this website seems to advocate the destruction of something that makes that $.50 bus fare possible.

    And again, at least they bothered to get permission from *someone* before modifying their property. You make it clear that it works in your reply to stellacat, and then cry that it is a failure in your reply to daver…

    Do you really think there is no point to advertising, or no reason to post more than one image? That ads do not increase the likelihood that people will go spend money on something?

    “And I guess what really pisses me off more than anything is this bold-faced bullshit tactic of acting like the posters are actually available inside the buildings.” — At least they are *trying* not to be criminals…

  13. @Jason Eppink That was more of a snark at charlie for pretending vandalism and graffiti are god’s gift to the city, and advertising is satan’s love-child conceived from Hitler.

  14. Call me late to the party, but I have to wonder why public space activism and advocacy is not a more popular cause here in New York.

    Forgive me for drawing upon the Canadian experience, but Toronto has Spacing Magazine, the Toronto Public Space Committee, and the city’s largest city blog, Torontoist, is run and edited by public space zealots. Newmindspace was born from that ethos.

    Down here, Public Ad Campaign is great and I would consider it analogous to in Toronto.

    Of course this would probably lead the astute observer to ask, “Why don’t we start something more political?” which is a good question.

  15. It seems to me the point here is not the advertising is unwanted by the landlord (and thus graffitti); nor is it about free speech, as legal billboards are allowed in NYC.

    The issue boils down to tax evasion and permits. This company has as much right to operate in this way as a hot dog vendor has the right to set up shop without a permit or paying sales taxes. From the fact that the company can build an entire busines around this shows that these by-laws obviously need more teeth or better enforcement.

    That being said, and acknowledging the large amounts of actual public nuisances that are celebrated in the web site, this is more artistic vigilanteism than graffitti.

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