Driving a tank through airport’s advertising defence

This was published by the Canberra Times on 28 October, 2015.

Authors: David Stephens and Peter Tait

Canberra Airport managing director Stephen Byron has defended his airport's determination to continue to accept advertising from arms manufacturers ("Anti-ad drive ignores reality", Forum, October 24, p6). There are flaws in his argument that you can drive a tank through.

First, Byron says denying advertisements will not prevent wars. Yet, relentlessly advertising the machinery of war in public places normalises war and conflict, making it seem part of our lives – like motor cars, white goods, holidays at Noosa, or any other advertised product. The use of weapons by nation against nation should be the last, worst option, not an everyday sight.

Second, Byron complains that Canberra Airport is being targeted while other outlets for defence advertising are ignored. He is too modest about the importance of the airport. Its own website quotes travel writer Pico Iyer: "Airports say a lot about a place, because they are both a city's business card and its handshake: they tell us what a community yearns to be, as well as what it really is." The tone set for Canberra by these dominant advertisements is that of a city whose economy turns on the defence industry, when defence is only a relatively minor provider of employment and income here.

Third, Byron insists the airport will accept any advertising that meets community standards; he has told the No Airport Arms Ads campaign that he would be reluctant to accept advertising for the Canberra casino because of the misery caused by gambling. On the same basis, many other legal products are unlikely to be spruiked​ on the airport's walls – alcohol, cigarettes, fast food, greyhound racing, R-rated movies, for example. Why is arms advertising let through?

The ability of an industry to pay top dollar will trump community standards, particularly when (again, as Byron told NAAA) there is not much competition for space. An assured revenue stream from multibillion-dollar international defence manufacturers will be difficult to resist. For their part, the manufacturers will be only too ready to use advertising to match their competitors, mark their territory – Australia is the world's sixth largest arms importer – and reinforce their links with government buyers.

How much is arms industry advertising worth to the airport? NAAA estimates the airport's total advertising revenue at between $1 million and $2 million a year; much of that would come from the defence industry. Our estimate is based on international airport data and Canberra Airport's advertising rates; we are happy for Byron to set us straight.

In spending their advertising budgets, arms industry advertisers try to skirt community standards and sensibilities by distancing the advertised products from their effects. Sleek jet fighters zoom across the sky with no hint of the death and destruction they deliver. We won't see advertisements for the "Heckler and Koch 417 weapon system", used by army marksmen. The army claims this weapon "enhances the protection and lethality of our soldiers", yet it is difficult to present it in a bland and sanitised way. It cuts too close to the bone, in more ways than one. Large weapons systems that kill remotely are so much easier to depict as benign forces for good.

Fourth, Byron says he would welcome crowd-sourced advertising putting another point of view on the arms industry. Will he then guarantee placement for anti-arms advertisements next to arms advertisements? That will set up an interesting contest between revenue and free speech.

That leads us to profits, a word missing from Byron's article. Byron says the Snow family has invested more than $2 billion in the airport; they should be commended for this. This investment has generated considerable profits: the Snow family companies, Canberra Airport Pty Limited and Capital Airport Group Pty Limited, together had after-tax profits of $195 million in 2014-15. Forbes Magazine in 2014 ranked Terry Snow as Australia's 46th richest person, with net worth of $620 million.

Next, Byron refers to the Snows' philanthropy and community-mindedness, including their recent support for marriage equality. NAAA commends these efforts; the annual value of the Snow Foundation's donations ($1.4 million) is roughly equivalent to the revenue we estimate the airport receives from advertising. Why not extend this philanthropy to give free space to diverse community advertisers and innovative local start-up companies, rather than chasing cashed-up arms manufacturers?

Finally, Byron says "we won't be retreating from our position". Who is "we" exactly? The two airport companies each has just two directors, Snow and Byron. The airport lacks a large board or body of shareholders to help it tap into views beyond itself.

Canberrans respect the contribution the Snow family makes to our city, but the family's philanthropic and community values need to play a larger part in the airport's advertising policies, so that our airport can better reflect the city in which we all live.

David Stephens and Peter W. Tait are members of the No Airport Arms Ads coalition, which is non-party political.