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Lies, Damned Lies ... And Billboards

Please spare us from the absurd claims of the advertising industry that deface our roads

Illustration: 123RF

The Bang Na expressway is a corridor of lies and deceit. Describing it like that may be extreme, but we are living in extreme times. We are required to react to everything in the most shocking way, and what better way to do that than to react hysterically to things which, back in the 20th century, warranted a cursory glance with a disapproving raised eyebrow.

These days it's not enough to be cursorily disapproving.

A good example, just prior to my journey along the expressway last night, was on my Facebook timeline where a friend posted a link to "THIRTEEN AMAZING WORLD VISTAS -- MY JAW DROPPED AT NUMBER EIGHT!"

How upsetting. First, why would any friend of mine would think I would get off on 13 amazing world vistas? Thirteen Amazingly Easy Vodka Aperitifs, maybe, but world vistas? The last time I looked there is only one world vista -- from space. From where else am I expected to observe the world?

Second … when did journalism shift from attempted objectivity to a brazen disregard for it? What happened to the days of "just the facts"? And the most perplexing question of all -- whose jaw are we talking about? I'm guessing it's the smelly overweight thirty-something webmaster ensconced in his mother's basement, thinking up sexy headlines for his list of stolen copyright photographs of world vistas in order to elicit internet ad traffic. Jaw owner, make thyself be known!

Number eight was bitterly disappointing, by the way, showing a lack of aestheticism on the part of the dropped jaw owner. Yes, I admit I clicked through, like the popular culture fool I am, and like so many other experiences in life, the anticipation was more thrilling than the event.

But enough of this rant. Let us return to the unceasing flow of traffic along the Bang Na expressway, and the lies and deceit found thereupon, of which I was a part this week.

Thailand has a very liberal policy towards billboards, which is a nice way of saying we can do what we like because we don't like to monitor or control things here.

Driving down the expressway feels like walking briskly through an art gallery of works not suited to one's taste. The sooner one gets to the gift shop, or Bang Na, the better. Thanks to this liberal policy we have monster billboards cramming the expressway and blotting out the otherwise appealing vistas of eastern Bangkok, beckoning us to buy condos, visit chain restaurants, slap on lightening cream and purchase brand-name clothing as worn by sullen models.

I fully understand the need for shameless exaggeration when selling a product; I am the owner of a school advertised as being run by "Thailand's number one English teacher". But these expressway billboards are starting to get out of hand.

A good example is the new Central department store billboard which celebrates the store's 70th anniversary. It has this sentence as the catchphrase: "A second home that transcends generations."

That sentence took me so long to digest I nearly rammed into the back of a Mercedes-Benz. This is the type of sentence that can send me into a funk for a good couple of days as I try to work out the correlation between a shopping mall and something that transcends generations. From my experience the only things that can transcend generations are love and communicable diseases. But a mall?

It appears department stores and condominium projects are jostling one another to come up with the most over-the-top sentence for their billboards, sacrificed on the altar of clear English and eloquence, not to mention truth.

I have a suspicion the advertising agencies responsible have those sets of fridge magnets with perceived high-society words on them like "exquisite", "ultimate", "elegance" and "sophisticated". When they get a new campaign account, they call in the maid or security guard fresh off the bus from Morchit and ask them to rearrange six or seven of the words in a line on the fridge. How else do we explain a "second home that transcends generations"?

Back when Siam Paragon opened, its billboards gift-wrapped the entire expressway network of Bangkok, not just the Bang Na bit. Its trailblazing slogan was "The Glorious Phenomenon".

That put me in a funk for a whole week. This slogan was not just over the top; it was tautologous as well. I was under the impression every phenomenon was glorious. Surely "glorious phenomenon" goes into the same file as "new innovation" or "repeat again" or "first priority". Such tautology is more of a crime than the fact it is an over-exaggeration -- a word that also goes into that file.

There is another billboard, not far from the Central one, that tells me a condominium project is the "Ultimate In 21st Century Sophisticated Living Style". That's got to be the work of the maid.

I would have thought living in a 3 x 5 metre apartment, where the front door has you walking straight into the mini-kitchen, is hardly the definition of the "ultimate" in anything, unless you're a sardine. And would somebody tell me what "living style" is, as opposed to, say, living?

(There's another billboard next to it for face cream that features the face of a Thai girl whose skin is so translucent I can see all the way through to her nasal passages and brain. This is not so much a clunky slogan issue, but she's so white she'd receive a lifetime membership to the Ku Klux Klan on her next shopping trip to Mississippi.)

Do you feel it too, dear reader? Are we becoming so more and more over the top that something has to burst?

We should be thankful. One of the flow-on effects of the 2014 coup d'etat was not just the eradication of the government. It also heralded the sudden end to a litany of giant billboards along the freeway, put up with taxpayers' money, championing the wondrous and varied ministerial projects of the time.

Each and every billboard featured the face of the minister in charge, suggesting our taxpayers' money was being channelled more towards licking the shins and legs of the ministers than any public announcements.

(The more polite Thais compare sycophantic behaviour to licking shins and legs, as opposed to native English speakers who find solace in lower intestinal parts.)

That proliferation of politicians, all of whom possessed faces only their mothers could love, along the Bang Na expressway was something that gave the current trend of unbridled exaggeration a run for its money.

If I were to draw up a list of 13 Thing To Improve Bangkok, I would include Banning Billboards, probably at number eight.

It's happened in other parts of the world. Four American states have banned billboards. Ten years ago Sao Paulo in Brazil removed the 10,000 billboards around the city. India's Chennai did the same in 2009. So did Grenoble, France, in 2014.

So it's not that extreme. It's probably not the most pressing problem the city has, and it's not as radical an idea as, say, razing street food markets or destroying communities in and around historical sites for the sake of social order. Humongous signs making outrageous claims in the name of advertising are more disruptive to social order than, well, street stalls selling pork on a stick.

I am imagining a Bang Na expressway with absolutely no billboards blocking the vistas. The sweeping views of the Klong Toey slum, the majestic sun setting over Phra Khanong shophouses -- breathtaking. Perhaps not on the list of world vistas, but it could be, at a pinch, a new place to drop one's jaw. n

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