The problem with Phantom Bill Stickers and their monopoly in NZ cities

by Daphna Whitmore

Many city councils in New Zealand have made their bollards and other public sites available for posters to a single company, Phantom Bill Stickers. In February 2019 Phantom accepted a contract with advocacy group Speak Up for Women to display posters on 60 sites from Auckland to Invercargill. A few days later Phantom abruptly, without discussion with Speak Up for Women, broke the contract and took down the posters.

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A poster that Phantom took down

When Phantom were contacted by Speak Up the managing partner, Jamey Holloway, said there had been complaints by 4 or 5 people about the posters, including an accusation that they were “transphobic”.  He said he was worried that the campaign was a ‘dog whistle’ for anti-transgender sentiment. Speak Up for Women objected and pointed out that this was a mischaracterisation.  They are pro-women’s rights, and their campaign is focused on getting reasonable public consultation on a Bill currently before parliament that will affect these rights.

The Advertising Standards Authority received two complaints about Speak Up’s posters and found that there were no grounds to proceed with either complaint.  (See here and here). The validity of Speak Up’s campaign was evident when on  March 11 the Minister in charge of the Bill, Tracey Martin, deferred the law change acknowledging “significant changes were made to the Bill by the select committee around gender self-identification and this occurred without adequate public consultation”.

This is not the first time that Phantom have censored a women’s rights campaign.  During the celebrations of the 125th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage the company would not accept a contract to display posters by feminist artist Renee Gerlich. Her posters had quotes from suffragists alongside text saying that suffrage was a campaign for females.  Meanwhile the company has recently accepted a poster order for “Yes to BDMRR”, the opposing campaign which is advocating that gender-self-identification go ahead.

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Phantom refused to put up posters such as this one by Renee Gerlich

Jan Rivers, who writes on issues of the Public Good and is a supporter of Speak Up for Women, raised this with the Wellington City Council. She was concerned that Phantom have twice used their right in a way that has discriminated against women, specifically feminist women.  “Phantom had bowed to pressure and when this happens on an issue of parliamentary democracy, censoring one side of the campaign is anti-democratic,” she said.  She has asked that the council “provide an assurance that it regards its poster sites as being available to cater for events and viewpoints that are subject only to those laws that normally place restrictions on public communications such as those that restrict hateful, defamatory and obscene messages.”

She also asked that Phantom be made aware of their contractual and democratic responsibilities and has asked for the council to establish a protocol to ensure democratic operation of their poster sites service. “They should ensure that the billboards fulfill their proper purpose of providing information to citizens. This means ensuring that the company does not disallow contracts based on their own prejudice.” She suggested that the council “draft a protocol with Phantom Bill Stickers so that it is neither allowed to make discriminatory decisions nor is placed under pressure by complainants to close down poster display contracts”. She spoke at a recent Wellington City Council meeting and as a result the council has registered the issue and will report back on how they plan to address it.

Phantom caved to the pressure of a handful of people and they showed they were willing to silence women.  It also points to a problem of fewer public spaces for non-commercial posters. Phantom, as a private company, has taken up much of the space that used to be used by grassroots people doing paste-ups. Even in the age of the internet, public street posters have a role in communicating a message.  The tradition of posters as part of the counter culture and of public protest is worth defending. In particular, given the evidence of a company making partisan and discriminatory decisions it is time for councils across the country to review Phantom’s monopoly to ensure they cannot use their monopoly position to shut down important political discussion.

6 comments

  1. Some excellent points there Daphna. Thanks very much for this article. I’ve encountered the difficulty of not being able to find space for posters myself. Until a couple of years ago, there was provision in our CBD for public posters, then suddenly those boards just disappeared, to be replaced by Phantom ones. They now have a monopoly where I live. Since some of their spaces are huge, I have sometimes piggybacked their space by putting my own posters over theirs but in such a way as to not obscure their essential message. Seemed like an ethical compromise to me. Why not share the space? However, they always tear mine down in no time flat. The only thing left is to use the many closed down shop fronts as substitutes. Quite often they get taken down too as they are seen as disfiguring the natural beauty of the area, though I personally think if the economy was doing better, there wouldn’t be so many available places, to begin with. The really ugly thing is the state of the economy in the regions. Can’t paper over that, no matter how many posters they try to take down.

    • It’s a problem in lots of NZ. When Phantom took the posters down many activists went out and postered around the country but it wasn’t easy to find good spots to poster without getting them taken down quickly. However, the crappy treatment dished out by Phantom was a motivator and lots of posters went up.

  2. Barrie and Daphna both raise a serious concern about the privatisation of public spaces, and thanks for doing it. Regardless of the politics involved, there is no way Phantom stickers should be the sole arbiter of what can and cannot be seen. Maybe NZ’s left could come together to carry out a mass poster campaign to highlight this issue

    • That’s a great idea. Maybe something on the the importance of free speech would be appropriate? It would however exclude the bureaucratic left who think the public mind must be regulated and that the masses cannot be trusted to think correct thoughts.

  3. I agree. I see bureaucratic and authoritarian going hand in hand. The bureaucratic element probably focuses more on policing what it sees as ‘offensive’ and ‘micro aggressions’. They are big on trigger warnings.

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