The grey boxes are breeding but what are they for?

What’s grey, square and pissing people off? It’s not a joke (or not a funny one) but the latest object getting in people’s way on the streets of Manchester. 

While discontent about the grey boxes has been rumbling for a while, it has come to head today as some mysterious figure pasted signs upon the boxes that read: 

“This box is to show where we are going to put our big, shiny advert. You’ll have to walk around it and bump into other people who have also been inconvenienced and it’ll create an annoying bottleneck, but we are sure you’ll agree that you’re only a pedestrian and if you were better motivated and a better person, you’d have a car and this wouldn’t be a problem.” 

Or, more pithily, “fuck these stupid boxes”.

This upgrade will provide the Council an additional £2.4m in revenue each year

But what are these stupid boxes? Theories range from alien invasion to Cold War-style listening stations but in reality, what is really enraging people is that they look ugly, get in the way and seem to serve no purpose.

The good news is that they are temporary. The grey boxes are covers while the Council’s contractor, French firm JCDecaux, installs updated advertising hoardings. The new advertising panels, however, will be very permanent.

Grey Box On The Streets Of Manchester Credit Confidentials
A grey box spotted in the wild Image: Confidentials

A new approach

Legend has it that Sir Howard Bernstein inspired city councils everywhere to take a new approach to advertising when he placed advertising boards on certain busy roundabout, creating a whole new revenue stream for Manchester City Council. Small format advertising, though, was not considered important enough to try and make a profit from. 

However, now that the council is discouraging car journeys (and the eyeballs that come with them) the hope must be that city centre footfall will increase, and with it the worth of pavement advertising. In this vein, a contract was put out to tender last year to upgrade the advertising hoardings across Manchester city centre.

The contract was awarded to JCDecaux, for a total value of £24,537,550, and will last for ten years (JCDecaux also had the previous small format advertising contract for 26 years, which raised no revenue for the council). The new free-standing units will be primarily an advertising space intermingled with public announcements from the council. The units are termed “Community Information Panels” (CIPS) and there will a total of 86 of them by the end of this year - many replacing existing advertising display units.

The CIPs will feature the logos of Manchester City Council and the Manchester bee. Installation (as evidenced by the grey boxes) is taking place in Piccadilly, Deansgate, Market Street, King Street, Portland Street and the Northern Quarter. A user-generated map by @caldvs has found 28 so far and more, to the discontent of Twitter users, are being installed every day.

Grey Box Near Piccadilly Station Credit Confidentials
Another grey box Image: Confidentials

A spokesperson for Manchester City Council said: “In December 2020 work began to replace the old backlit paper advertising columns and units which had been in place throughout the city centre since the 1990s. 

“A total of 86 sites are being upgraded to new digital screens following planning consent being granted. This planning process took into account highway safety for each individual unit as well as the historic impact of their placement, including how pedestrians move on the highway.

“The Council understands the concerns around the temporary grey covers for the units however, they were essential to protect members of the public from the electric cables which will supply power to the new units.”  

JCDecaux says that the CIPs will be powered by renewable energy and maintained by technicians driving electric vehicles, limiting any carbon emissions. For every CIP installed, the company will plant five new trees. A community fund will support the Greater Manchester Mayor’s Charity “A Bed Every Night” initiative. JCDecaux has also pledged to provide a range of apprenticeships and work placements across the city.

Grey Box On Deansgate Credit Jack Fbr
How it looked this morning Image: @jack_fbr

The new contract came about after a meeting of the council’s subgroup on procurement and contract management discussed how to “ensure that inappropriate content is not displayed through the advertising estate”. The Strategic Director of Development had been asked to provide an assurance that the council would not be supportive of any advertising that celebrated inappropriate conduct.

For example, the council set out a number of criteria for a potential contractor that included “the Advertisement must not be in advocacy of, or opposition to, any politically, environmentally or socially controversial subjects or issues”; “the Advertisement must not depict men, women or children in a sexual manner or displays nude or semi-nude figures in an overtly sexual context”; “the Advertisement must not promote financial organisations and loan advancers with punitive interest rates” and “the Advertisement must not contain negative references to Manchester City Council Services or those services provided or regulated by the Authority, organisations associated with the Authority or Greater Manchester Local Authorities”. Of course.

Advertising revenue

The new contract was designed to maximise the return from the advertising estate and include a fixed fee and a return on a percentage of the gross revenue, which allowed the council to budget based on fixed income whilst incentivising the supplier to generate as much revenue as possible. 

That MCC spokesperson again: “Importantly, set against a decade of cuts to Local Authority budgets this upgrade will provide the Council an additional £2.4m in revenue each year, money which will be spent providing the vital services thousands of Mancunians rely on.”

Financially there seems to be a prima facie justification for upgrading the boxes. What about street access though? Twitter user @caldvs observed that at some locations there is not room for two pairs of people to pass one another. In the guidance for granting a pavement licence the Council states that, “In all cases, a minimum width of 1.8m clear passageway must be left for pedestrians and applications providing less than 1.8m will be rejected,” so it seems reasonable to expect the same of the new advertising boards. Although the CIPs themselves are meant to take up less footprint than the grey boxes, when you take into account the whole of the unit it doesn't seem that it will be reduced by much.

Grey Box On Denasgate Taken November 23 Credit Confidentials
How it looks now Image: Confidentials

So what can we expect to see on the new advertising units/CIPs? JCDecaux are considered a world leader in “out of home advertising” and have run campaigns in other cities that respond to the environment and the consumers walking past them. It is now standard in JCDecaux’s portfolio to be able to tailor adverts displayed according to time of day, weather and how many people are walking past. 

For example, as part of its Not Normal campaign, the company ran dynamic, tailored content that specifically addressed Mini drivers as they drove past the digital screens with messages including: "Hello blue Mini driver" and "Hey cream Mini, what’s your secret?". While the adverts may be cute or creepy, depending on your point of view, they raise questions of just how much information the boxes can extract from their environment. According to a Council spokesperson; "The boxes do not have facial recognition capabilities. Out of the 86 being placed, 22 will have footfall sensors to monitor pedestrian traffic in the city centre." 

Work is scheduled to be completed on the new units by December 14. JCDecaux had removed the majority of the protest signs by lunchtime today.

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