Brands that ignore a crackdown on unlawful outdoor ads will risk their reputation and a hefty legal bill.
Gateshead Council's successful prosecution last week of Newcastle agency Gorilla Media for placing illegal roadside signage on AdVans for brands including the government-backed Adult Learning Grants initiative has put the issue of rogue advertising firmly back in the spotlight.
Industry leaders claim the problem is diminishing, but the government's setting up of a central database last week to empower councils to prosecute repeat offenders suggests otherwise.
With social responsibility at the top of the business agenda, illicit outdoor media will be a concern to marketers wanting to avoid the tag of corporate vandalism.
Brands running ads on lampposts or illegal hoardings certainly need to consider their actions more carefully, according to Glen Wilson, deputy managing director at Posterscope.
'These companies are effectively stealing advertising space,' he says. 'Advertisers using these firms are supporting these practices and marketers need to realise that there is a reason why these campaigns are being offered so cheaply.'
The true cost of such activity is passed on to consumers through their council tax, as their local authority is faced with the task of keeping the streets clean. Camden Council estimates that in 2004 it spent pounds 250,000 on removing flyposters. Gateshead Council says residents regularly complain about illegal ads, which it believes have a 'negative effect on the urban environment'.
The responsibility lies with marketers to ensure they are using a reputable and well-resourced agency, says Chris O'Donnell, business development director at Kinetic. 'There are always people operating on the dark side of any medium, but it is imperative that agencies know the law,' he adds.
In relation to the latter point, Camden Council claims that rogue companies will often tell advertisers that they have 48 hours to remove a poster after they are contacted by the authorities, when in fact the timing of the offence is taken to be the point at which the ad was put up.
In general, bigger companies such as Guardian Newspapers and Sony BMG have ceased flyposting, but vigilance is still required when it comes to smaller brands, according to Camden Council's enforcement officer. 'Most flyposters are well aware that what they are doing is illegal, and we hold both the advertiser and flyposter responsible,' he says.
Reputable agencies agree there is a moral argument against illegal sites, but there are also commercial implications. There is no guarantee, for example, that the vast majority of a flyposting campaign will not end up in the bin.
Flyposting also risks negative brand connotations; Bristol residents were up in arms when work by renowned graffiti artist Banksy was removed, but an ad for a sale at a sofa showroom would be unlikely to evoke the same passionate defence.
A more serious danger, particularly in relation to illegal roadside advertising, is a costly lawsuit. Many agencies will have liability insurance, but marketers using smaller outfits could leave themselves wide open. …