Signs of the times
Asked to summarise Manila in a few words, most people would probably mention 'pollution', 'traffic', 'chaos' and 'noise'. It is a cliched description that does not do justice to the city - mainly because it leaves out 'billboards'.
Coming home recently from a trip abroad, I noticed how more and more of the city's skyline is being absorbed by giant signs. You are barely out of the airport when your eyes are assailed by a cluster of three-storey-high billboards.
From there, down through Edsa, the city's main street, the trip is like an endless procession of billboards. Row after row, they march along the avenue - an expression of the urban planning philosophy that holds: 'never let air go unfilled when it can be rented out to advertisers'.
The signs tell commuters what to wear, eat, drink, wash themselves with and watch on television, as well as where to shop and which phones to use. They all promise a better life, cleaner clothes and more hygienic body parts. They assure us that life in this country is good - provided we have the incomes of billboard advertisement models.
And the signs are everywhere. Atop buildings, beside buildings, on empty lots, underground in tunnels, on pillars and posts, on top of other billboards, attached to buses and even being driven round by trucks. I have not seen any deodorant adverts flying around at eye level, but it is probably just a matter of time. Practically every building along Edsa has a billboard, leading me to suspect that inside the buildings live more billboards. The giant signs so dominate the landscape that they completely overshadow the modestly sized traffic signs. But then, who pays attention to those, anyway?
Some might argue that the colourful, eye-catching signs help relieve the tedium of commuting. Drivers making their way home might chortle at some of the computer-enhanced signs, deriving a measure of enjoyment from life's daily grind, only seconds before they plough their car into the huge bus they were distracted from seeing. Not to worry, there should be a billboard nearby advertising some hospital.
Let's face it: in Manila, billboards are what pass for culture and urban renewal. Other cities might take pride in their churches, parks and beautifully designed buildings - this city offers nothing but a billboard bazaar. We are looking at a future where the city will be covered with billboards, and there will be no use tearing them down because behind them will be even more billboards.
Perhaps, if people concerned about this uncontrolled growth campaigned vigorously, they might convince officials to enact rules on where signs can be placed. No doubt, these regulations would be displayed on a large billboard.