In Public Why Advertising Feels Like a Form of Urban Pollution
The problem isn’t encountering text, or even a lot of it. It’s the text that we encounter, the how and why of its coming to be.
As someone whose mother tongue is English but who’s lived my whole life in Montreal, a bilingual enclave in majority-francophone Quebec, I’m what’s known in Canada as a “linguistic minority.”
It’s a strange, almost laughable bit of bureaucratic terminology to apply to people like me. Despite the fact that I order coffee, pay for my groceries, and access much of my health care in French, the language I speak at home and with friends is the one spoken by most of the continent I live on, as well as millions of other people around the globe, vast swaths of the internet, and teeming masses of humans past, present, and future.
What this means in practice, however, is that arriving in major cities like Toronto or New York, or even midsize cities elsewhere in Canada or the US, and encountering English-language signage has always been a bit of a jarring experience for me.
Sometimes the culprit is the local government, posting signs like “TRAFFIC CALMING,” “RAISE PLOW,” and “BRIDGE ICES BEFORE ROAD,” messages that feel incomprehensible to me at first glance, composed of words I recognize but in contexts that feel opaque to varying degrees and often leave me guessing at what, exactly, is being communicated, to whom, and why.
Then there are ones like “NO STANDING,” whose message seems impossible to mistake but which, to me, seem impossible. No standing? Really? (Upon looking it up for this article, it turns out I had mistaken the meaning after all. In case you’re wondering, no, I can’t drive.)
Mostly, it’s that we don’t quite have these signs where I live. Beyond just being a city where knowing how to drive is solidly optional, Montreal understands the value of pictorial representation. Where signs like NYC’s old “WALK/DON’T WALK” can feel, with their imperative mood, aggressive, an outline of a person, legs in stride, conjures a possibility. Now is the time when you can walk, when it’s safe to do so.
In dense urban areas with a lot of advertising, it feels like being shouted at.
More often when I’m traveling and encounter signs in English, though, the force that haunts me is the free market. Unlike the French-language advertisements I encounter at home, in English I can sense much more clearly every nuance of the phrasing and word choices billboards make, their increasingly desperate attempts to put on “fun” brand voices; I can imagine the so-called creatives chain-crushing Red Bulls and bouncing corny puns off each other, managers telegraphing key messaging points and core values all the while.
In dense urban areas with a lot of advertising, it feels like being shouted at, like I’m dodging people trying to get me to sign up for a credit card or try a free energy drink everywhere I look. It feels, honestly, like a form of urban pollution I have no defenses against.
In fact, what it reminds me of most might be noise pollution.
I started thinking about noise pollution only in the past year or two. Regular pollution was something I considered a lot as a child, and in recent years I’d become more thoughtful about light pollution, the slow, darkly poetic erasure of the night sky’s full majesty.
But one of the first things that made noise pollution real for me was a New York Times acrostic puzzle from just before the pandemic hit North America, whose answer was a sentence describing the relative quietude of late eighteenth-century Vienna. The unabridged quote, from writer Steven Halpern’s book Sound Health (spoiler alert for word-game nerds), reads:
“When Mozart was composing at the end of the eighteenth century, Vienna was so quiet that fire alarms could be given verbally by a shouting watchman mounted on top of St. Stefan’s Cathedral. As recently as just before World War II, the brass bell on top of a fire truck was loud enough to clear traffic from its path.”
The detail—the possibility of so much silence in the midst of so many people, so much life —stuck in my brain’s craw. Going down the rabbit hole, as one does, I came across a fascinating fact about noise pollution: Even relatively low levels of noise, sustained indefinitely, are associated with negative health outcomes.
The sense of calm and oneness that people feel when in nature, therefore, may have more to do with the great outdoors’s vastly different soundscape than any attributes of the physical spaces themselves. Conversely, constant exposure to the noise of engines, construction, and tires rolling on asphalt appears to produce subtle but meaningful increases in the body’s stress response.
Indeed, there is something jarring about traveling from a quieter place to a noisier one, whether you’re entering a room full of people or visiting a dense metropolis when you live in the countryside—or even a comparably quieter city.
Thinking about noise—its sources, its effects, its qualities—became a recurring phenomenon in the weeks and months that followed. I learned about terms like biophony and the ways underwater sound was deadly to dolphins and other underwater life.
Of course, in retrospect, it’s obvious that sound can be harmful; for one, the idea of sound as a weapon is not especially new to anyone who’s ever read about bands they liked being used as torture material by American intelligence officers in Guantánamo Bay.
Still, it was surprising learning about how little sound is necessary to start producing detrimental effects on human health. The consistent background hum of car engines, tires rolling on asphalt, and jackhammering produces concrete effects—ones that may be felt as mere sensation but that are actually an embodied form of stress that, over time, can become severe.
It was in this context—of being more aware of an alert to the phenomenon of noise pollution—that I experienced, again, the jarring shift from French-language signage to English on a trip from Montreal to the almost-completely unilingual Ontario. All of a sudden, entire streetcars wrapped in advertising made their way through the city, moving billboards for plant-based meat. Subway stations turned into floor-to-ceiling ad space for a certain British billionaire’s phone company.
Conceiving of this cacophony of sentences in 1,000-point font as a form of visual noise pollution gave me a framework for understanding the odd feeling I associate with traveling to places where my mother tongue is the lingua franca.
I’d never heard anyone else speak about this phenomenon, one I wasn’t even sure existed. Still, though I had no word for it—and still don’t—I felt confident that it was real. As people who follow meme pages online know, there’s no such thing as an individual experience; all our secret childhood moments turn out, in retrospect, to have been experienced by thousands if not millions of others. The absence of a phenomenon from the discourse does not suggest its absence from reality, merely that it hasn’t yet been taken up by the masses.
I imagine this is also the case for other people who grow up in places where the language they speak at home isn’t the one they see everywhere outside, or where multiple languages jostle for position. Being less fluent in the language you’re surrounded by can function as a kind of psychic force field, a sort of amniotic sac, a frosted window that can, in the right context, dull the outside world to a bokeh of pleasing colors.
A few weeks ago, my mother told me that her (primarily anglophone) book club friends recently described to her the feeling of calm and relaxation they feel upon traveling outside of Quebec’s borders to other parts of the continent—freed from the question of whether to speak in English or French. I think about how perfectly opposite this is to how I feel—that the certainty of English-language communication is what I find most taxing.
Of course, on some level, I understand that for many Anglos, living in Quebec is a stressful proposition. Partly, this is by design. After decades of culture war and two failed referenda on whether Quebec should leave Canada and become a country of its own, the province’s two languages have lived in something of an uneasy truce since 1995. But the recently passed provincial Bill 96, for instance, forbids doctors from communicating with patients in English, as well as imposes restrictions on who is allowed to attend English-language schools, among other provisions.
In the name of preserving francophone-Quebec culture, the logic goes, the enveloping tide of English must be pushed back against; the government here is forever erecting linguistic levees, dykes, and sandbags in an attempt to forestall the province’s slide into the gaping maw of universal anglophonism.
Nowhere is this fight more apparent than in Montreal, Quebec’s most populous—and most linguistically divided—city. Where the rest of the province is nearly unilingually French, census data shows that only 50 to 60 percent of Montrealers claim the language as their mother tongue, with 10 to 15 percent claiming English and 25 to 40 percent other languages.
The city’s two English-language universities, McGill and Concordia, function as a kind of magnet, drawing a seemingly endless supply of English-speaking students to the city every year. The upshot of this is there are certain neighborhoods in the city where English is the de facto tongue. But with few full-time job opportunities for people without a working command of French, what do these students do when they graduate?
That’s hardly an academic question, as it turns out. A 2016 Globe and Mail article by Eric Andrew-Gee explored the reasons for Montreal’s surprisingly low rents compared with other major cities in Canada. Partly, Andrew-Gee concludes, it’s a function of a city with a larger supply of apartments relative to overall housing. However, it’s also partly a language issue, as the reality of the province’s official language stymies population growth here in ways it doesn’t in other large Canadian cities.
The idyllic Montreal summer—beautiful young people lounging on picnic blankets in parks, drinking cans of craft beer and eating baguettes and soft cheeses—is a prize for those capable of withstanding everything else, from the cruel intensity of our winters to the level of French proficiency required by most jobs.
A more temperate, culturally welcoming version of the city would see its rents rise in a matter of months; it would see, like Toronto and New York, its historic cultural centers ripped out of the ground and replaced with airless corporate spaces, chain stores, and towering, empty condo developments for the rich to speculate on.
From this perspective, the mythical specter of the angry Francophone tut-tutting, ignoring, or berating Anglophones who dare set their unilingual feet in the province reminds me of someone else. Perhaps they function as the linguistic version of anti-gentrification activists, people who commit vandalism in gentrifying neighborhoods in order to make them less welcoming to well-heeled would-be interlopers.
It’s an odd situation to find oneself caught with a foot on either side of the fence; many of my friends here are less comfortable than me when it comes to French and (rightly or wrongly) feel the tension of that fear on some level every day.
In emotional terms, I badly want them to feel welcome here, even as, in material terms, I benefit from the very discomfort they feel, which turns other people like them off the idea of coming here. Like far too many beautiful places, Montreal is a walled garden, a space whose very niceness depends on the exclusion of outsiders.
There’s a Twitter meme that’s cropped up in recent years about the potency of modern creations. It goes something like this: Expose a medieval peasant to some artifact of twenty-first-century life—an Instagram influencer’s thirst trap; a Mountain Dew Baja Blast; hell, even a Steely Dan song—and they might die on the spot. Capitalism’s unwavering push for harder, better, faster, stronger means that we are forever finding ourselves acclimatized to things that would have been unthinkably singular to our forebears.
Comparatively sheltered in a major city that simply doesn’t contain as much money as its peers, I feel, at times, like that time-traveling peasant. Every trip to places where the ad industry works a little more seamlessly and relentlessly, and all this in English, means that I’m exposed to the shock of something most people have long since gotten used to.
It’s bleeding outside the edges of pure marketing too. The last time I was in Toronto, in August, I encountered what felt like a logical endpoint to all this: Covid-safety PSAs using the language of fun brand-speak, posted at intercity train stations across southern Ontario. “Wear a face covering,” said one. “Learn to smile with your eyes. Models call it ‘smizing.’” Another boasted that “We’ve stepped up cleaning on trains, on buses, and in stations. That includes every nook and cranny. Wait, what’s a cranny?”
I can’t help but feel that being inundated with billboards begging so desperately for your attention is bad for people both aesthetically and spiritually.
I railed against it upon returning home, but my partner pointed out that this might just be the most effective way to wage war against the virus in a city where text without a “personality” simply wouldn’t be able to gain a foothold in the average passenger’s consciousness. The PSAs were in an arms race—or maybe it’s just that when you hire an advertising agency to come up with public health messaging, you get ad copy.
Regardless, I can’t help but feel that being inundated with billboards and signs begging so desperately for your attention every time you set foot in the built space of a city is bad for people both aesthetically and spiritually, a kind of low background hum that only makes its presence truly known in its absence.
This past summer, my mother sent me a video she’d taken in the countryside. It’s dusk, and as she pans her camera from left to right, its eye falls across a vista of soothing lush greens.
But the real power of the video is its audio: frog croaks, insect chirrups, birdsong. The fauna are singing the songs of themselves, a symphony of biophony. It’s so loud— and yet it’s unbelievably soothing.
Watching—listening—I could feel my heart rate lower in real time. I posted it on Instagram, soliciting people’s opinions for why it was so pleasant to take in. One suggestion, that the sounds of nature thriving are, on some deep core level, a sign that we, too, can thrive, piqued my interest. Regardless, it was a reminder that it’s not sheer decibel level that determines what counts as noise pollution; context and content are also hugely important.
Which brings me back to visual noise pollution. The problem isn’t encountering text, I think, or even a lot of it. It’s the text that we encounter, the how and why of its coming to be, that makes it either soothing or exhausting.
What would cities look like without all this text, or at least with less of it? What would cities look like with bylaws against certain forms of advertising—or certain degrees of advertising density? Or with easy-to-understand signage that leverages visuals over walls of text? What, for that matter, of non-advertising signage? What about public art, poetry in place of promotional material?
What would cities look like without so much of the built space being leveraged to extract attention—and thus money—from you?