Fighting Illegal Advertising With the Rule of Law

Fighting Illegal Advertising With the Rule of Law

Rami Tabello, the guy behind the anti-billboard organization Illegal Signs in Toronto, Ontario, is the kind of laid-back dude who updates his social networking status with “is getting ready for an exciting day at Planning and Growth Management where the billboard tax and signs by-law will be debated.”

He loves what he and the group he founded three years ago do, and what’s not to like? Illegal Signs is like vigilantism, but less criminal. They’re not relying on viral videos or media hoaxes, either: Tabello and crew use city codes and ordnances like secret weapons.

“We fight illegal advertising using the rule of law,” is how Tabello describes his organization.

Through diligent research, friendly phone calls, regularly filed complaints and extensive grassroots campaigning, Illegal Signs – Tabello works with around 10 volunteers – suggests, urges, nags and downright cajoles Toronto’s City Council into removing illegal outdoor ads. One by one. Well over 625 complaints have been filed with the city since the group formed in 2007. The group’s recent success in pushing through a bill that now greatly restricts public advertising in unpermitted zones was the envy of anti-corporate activists everywhere.

At least, that’s the Hollywood version of the story: A roaming group of volunteers with city hall on speed dial scours the town for corporate creep. Really, Tabello says, the group keeps an eye out for violative ads in “a multitude of ways.” One way is to hit the books, examining city records at the Buildings Department, which monitors outdoor advertising permits.

The group also turns marketing firm backbiting to its own advantage. As Tabello explains, “We co-opted the enemy. We have infiltrated the billboard companies themselves. We have developed a number of key informants that work for billboard companies – these informants provide us with the locations of illegal billboards that their competitors have built. There isn’t one major billboard company in Toronto that isn’t providing us with actionable information on their competitors.”

It’s not insider baseball we’re talking about here: “Everyone knows we have informants all over the place,” Tabello says. “This has created a tremendous amount of bad blood between the billboard companies.”

Such rancor makes it difficult for the industry to put up a united front and, Tabello continues, “As a result, we aren’t fighting an industry anymore – we’re fighting individual companies at war with each other, who hate each other more than they hate us. It’s a mutually destructive industry fuckfest instigated and perpetuated by activists.”

Tabello got started catching criminal advertisers, he says, “with a sign in my neighborhood that was bugging me: 590 College Street.” He still remembers the address from the Spring 2006 billboard, a three-dimensional monstrosity touting beer and/or soccer (even looking at pictures of it now, it’s hard to discern what you’re supposed to want to buy.) A conversation with another activist alerted Tabello to the fact that all protruding signs are illegal in Toronto. After several calls to the Buildings Department, this one was removed. The company that had put it up, Titan Outdoor, didn’t stop placing 3D signs, however – it just entered into an elaborate cat-and-mouse game with Tabello and crew, moving its elaborate signs to different areas of the city when caught.

While most would let up the chase, however, Tabello responded by spinning off his work with the Toronto Public Space Committee into a new organization, Illegal Signs.

He’s a bit of an unlikely activist. He funds the work, he says, “almost entirely with the profits I make from gambling on sporting events such as NFL football games.” (The group also gets occasional donations.)

But by now he’s had years of experience. When asked about his youth, he jokes, “When I was a young boy I used to write on the walls of the house without a permit. This got my parents upset and they used disciplinary measures against me that had long lasting and far-reaching impact. I learned from a very early age that my behavior was very wrong.”

Toronto City Councillor Joe Mihevc has nothing but praise for Tabello’s work on Toronto’s new billboard bylaws. “Rami was part of a grassroots movement of residents that fearlessly took on the sign companies and lobbyists in a good-spirited campaign of beautifying our public spaces. It was selfless, and the energy that he and the movement put in was unbelievable.”

“In effect,” he continues, “this bylaw belongs to them. We never could have won it without them.” Councillor Mihevc, a career politician who, somehow, never stopped advocating for democratic access to public space, admits he was the “inside man” on the hit on criminal advertisers.

“There’s too much advertising in our lives,” he says. “It’s everywhere…. And people are saying, enough already. Many of those places we have no public control over, but we certainly do have control over the billboards.”

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Unflagging dedication aside, Tabello’s dashing good looks and piercing eyes don’t hurt the cause. These helped net him a spot on Canadian MTV and cover stories in local magazines that highlight his GQ-good looks, turning him into something of a poster child for the battle against the illegal placement of posters.

His methods have received some criticism. Outdoor advertisers, county clerks, the hen-pecked Building Department – they’re all exasperated by Illegal Sign’s consistent complaints, each of which requires a staff unused to scrutiny to do their jobs. Even Toronto Mayor David Miller, who publicly thanked the activists via his Twitter feed for the work on this winter’s billboard bylaw and tax hike, told news site Mondoville.com that the group’s methods occasionally irritated. “They have been incredible advocates,” he’s quoted as saying. “Sometimes annoyingly so.”

Of course, the sign companies whose methods are under scrutiny – and their well-paid lobbyists – are critical too. They “tried every trick in the book,” Councillor Mihevc explains. Fortunately, their dirty pool while the billboard bylaws were being debated didn’t fly. “Their lack of graciousness turned against them in the end,” he adds.

Yet, some public space advocates also question Tabello’s methods. For in the activist world, he strides a very thin line. Afterall, a Canadian MTV spot about what is basically an issue of hyperconsumerism, does very little to stop the consumerist forces at play in what should be a publicly accessible garden.

But Tabello isn’t anti-commerce. He’s not even anti-advertising. “Our organization supports the right to place posters on public utility poles,” our poster boy says.

“There is a big difference between posters and billboards. Posters tend to promote local things, and are often the only way nonprofit community groups can get their message across. Billboards, on the other hand, put a price tag on freedom of expression in public space, a price that usually can only be accessed by multinationals promoting global brands, at the expense of what is local. Billboards are also much larger than posters, typically two thousand times larger than a simple poster affixed to a hydro pole. Billboards can therefore undermine the local messages that posters are trying to convey.”

In fact, Tabello is simply pro-Toronto. “I was born in Toronto and lived here all my life,” he explains. “All of my work emerges from local politics, which is the most accessible level of democracy.”

Unlike most renegades, Tabello is also pro-law. “Politics writes the law. It’s only because we have support at the political level that anything is getting done on the illegal billboard front in Toronto.”

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Toronto City Councillor Joe Mihevc attributes the success of Illegal Sign’s work to creative organizing. Literally.

See, the magic number on Toronto’s City Council is 23: Mihevc needed to rally 23 votes among fellow council members to pass the billboard bylaw, and for months they came close. Twenty two-ish, 19. So Illegal Signs and the Beautiful City Alliance, an advocacy network supporting art in the public sphere, worked together on building support among the creative class.

“The arts community – that’s where we swung about five votes,” Councillor Mihevc explains. “That’s what made the difference.”

It’s become rare for politicians to acknowledge any benefit to the arts whatsoever. After years of steadily defunding arts initiatives, public programs, afterschool programs, and in-school art, music and dance education, it seems that North American politicians have finally agreed that creativity equals frivolity.

That this consolidation of terms allows for a very privatized notion of what constitutes the public good escapes the notice of many. But freedom of expression offers more than a choice of paintings to hang above your couch. Freedom of expression means all citizens have the right to present all opinions. And when corporations purchase the right to express their opinions bigger and louder than anyone else, the public receiving that message must get something back.

Or, as Councillor Mihevc puts it, “If there is advertising going in public spaces, then the public has to benefit from it.”

Of course, the notion that there is anything whatsoever to be done about hypercommercialism, the proliferation of advertising in the public sphere, and rampant corporatism has become even harder to locate than a decently funded high-quality community arts program. (Trust me, I’ve looked.)

Which is why Tabello is not just an interesting activist, but a necessary figure. How do you respond, I ask him, to people who call the fight for public space unwinnable in the age of corporate personhood? To those who consider your work fighting corporate creep pointless?

“If it was pointless,” he says, “we wouldn’t have had over 100 illegal billboards removed already, and the City of Toronto would not be enacting comprehensive new billboard regulations and the world’s first meaningful billboard tax.”

His response – and the work of Illegal Signs – is like Jiu Jitsu, except with a knife. Tabello fights corporate control of public space using the heft of the sign companies against them, but has a weapon on hand at all times.

Strip away the complicated ordnance numbers, the coordinated phone trees, the clever politicking and the flashy grin, and you discover that his secret weapon is a healthy respect for his city and its processes.

“I love billboards,” Tabello jokes finally. “I just love the city that’s behind them better.”