[OUTLOOK]Attack of the 50-foot roadside ads

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[OUTLOOK]Attack of the 50-foot roadside ads

Not too long from now, we might have billboards that cover the entire exterior of skyscrapers.
It is attributed to the new scheme to rationalize the regulations on outdoor advertisement, which was finalized by the government last month. Though the new regulations are limited to only one side of structures taller than 15 stories in the general commercial districts of urban areas, I am concerned that the new scheme might make downtown scenery even less attractive. It is encouraging that some local government bodies have expressed more interest in the slathering of signboards and billboards on the streets.
About a year ago, the Culture and Tourism Committee of the National Assembly created a subcommittee for signs and billboards. However it is inescapable to have urban sceneries stained by advertisements, since the key functions of a metropolitan city in a capitalist society are consumption and fashion.
Therefore, people flood out of cities, hoping to see something natural and pristine. Yet once we pass the highway tollgate, we’re let down. Advertisement towers jut out of mountains and fields. Advertisement campaigns for various products and companies block out the sky and mar the landscape. Some ad campaigns are sponsored by local autonomous governments and public institutions, and some even by universities.
Most advertisements are illuminated by glaring lights that are never turned off. Under the existing law on outdoor advertisements, advertisers are obliged to “maintain the scenic beauty,” but the law has already been turned into a dead letter.
The roadside scenery in modern days has been filled with billboards and signboards. In the advertisement industry, outdoor billboards are known as the “perfect medium.” No one can turn them off or change the channel.
Laurie Mager, a critic of advertisements, has called billboards the “junk on the poles.” What’s next? A billboard as big as the moon installed in space so that everyone on the earth can see it? Leave it to mankind to ruin not only the scenery on earth but in space as well.
Of course, it is not always best to keep nature as it is. It is not possible and not necessary. The landscape has always been a social and historic thing. In that sense, the German art historian Martin Warnke was right in saying that all landscapes are ultimately political.
From colossal monuments to fortresses and gardens, from roads and bridges to fields and forests, from farmhouses to wildernesses, landscapes are constantly created and processed by the power structure and dynamics of human control. Advertisement towers can rightfully claim to be part of a landscape.
A landscape that has been created sincerely can be beautiful, and nature that has been unaltered by the hand of man can look unnatural. In the East, the true experience of natural scenery is believed to be to lie in the human expression and touching in nature. Therefore, the best essence is not one of human aggression against nature, but the taste of an artificial element added to an otherwise natural scene.
The Japanese landscape expert Yoshio Nakamura said that scenery is an artwork made by the people of the country. That may be so, but it takes a whole lot of squinting to blur Korea’s highways into a work of art. We feel helpless in the face of these countless, gigantic advertisements.
No advertisement towers can be found along the autobahn in Germany, the pioneer of the modern-day motorway. The German example, however, cannot be taken as a realistic model. What is more urgent and important today is the adoption of spatial restrictions and aesthetic refinements on billboards. In addition to ruining the scenery and playing a major role in environmental pollution, they distract drivers who should be keeping their eyes on the roads. The oversized outdoor billboards along the highways in Korea aren’t just rude ― they’re dangerous.
Economic development or democratic rights are not the ultimate yardstick for a developed nation. What determines the dignity of a country is a subtle difference of sensibility toward the quality of life. Unless we go through the agony of facing the savagery against roadside scenery in the name of civilization, Korea will forever remain a culturally backward country.

* The writer is a professor of sociology at the Graduate School of Environmental Studies of Seoul National University. Translation by the staff of the JoongAng Daily.

by Jun Sang-in
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