Billboards of DOOM!

Do you remember that moment in school assemblies where the teacher would tell off the whole year group for the actions of one individual? It was usually because they didn’t know who the culprit was, so they hoped that by telling us all off the guilty party would be exposed. If so, do you remember that feeling of guilt or hysteria that would creep up your spine as it was happening, making you fear that you might just jump out of line and start screaming ‘it was me! It was me! I dunnit!’, even though you didn’t ‘dunnit’?

I’m guessing some or all of you have had that feeling at one time or another when in the midst of a group bollocking that had nothing to do with you. It’s almost as if our empathy goes into overdrive, so much so that we start doubting ourselves. ‘Maybe it was me who flooded the girls changing rooms, even though I’ve never been in them?’ Luckily for most of us those thoughts are superseded by logical reason and we resist the urge to surrender ourselves for no good reason.

Or maybe it’s just me. Either way, the reason this thought comes to mind was because when I decided to write today’s blog on the subject of a HMRC tax evasion billboard campaign, I got the same gut feeling. Even though I know I’ve done nothing wrong, having a set of two foot tall creepy eyes peering out at  you from behind some ripped spyhole atop the legend ‘WE’RE CLOSING IN ON UNDECLARED INCOME’ made me feel guilty is some way… I can’t think why.

I mean, just look at it (below). There’s nothing wrong with that is there? Why would the sight of giant disembodied eyes staring at you and accusing you of hiding money from the government cause anything but feelings of pleasant belonging and peace in the country you call home? Oh I know, because it’s insane.

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I first noticed these billboards on a recent trip from my house to the train station in Stoke. I live about 5 miles from the station. In that trip I saw four of these billboards, two of which were within 100 meters of each other.

Now, apart from the simple fact that it’s not very nice to traverse the streets of your home city while being followed around by an intense accusation, I couldn’t help but notice the irony of the campaign being so concentrated in Stoke-on-Trent. I concluded that there are two possible reasons for this:

Theory #1: Stoke-on-Trent is a major centre of undisclosed income in the UK.

Actually the evidence for this is plain to see. The reason we are so good at not disclosing income in this city is because we are so very careful not to spend it on anything (otherwise people would find out wouldn’t they?) That’s why we’ve allowed our several town centres to fall into commercial ruin, and why vast swathes of wasteland are waiting to be developed. That’s why so many of our community services are being cut to the bone or abolished all together – because we’re hiding income! Of course! It would be too obvious if we all started spending our secret stash on big houses, renovations, luxury items etc… So yeah HMRC, you might be onto something… OR:

Theory #2: Billboards (like most other real estate) are really cheap in Stoke-on-Trent.

But wait, maybe it’s because the HMRC like to boast about how many locations they have ‘hit’ around the country with this campaign, and by buying up space in all the really cheap areas of the country, they can make the figures seem more impressive?

If theory #2 is correct, does that mean that by trying to target ‘undeclared income’ with this campaign, while also looking to minimise costs, they are unfairly targeting those areas that already have very little income left to give (declared or otherwise), so they can save a bit of money? But then, why have the campaign in the first place? Isn’t that just costing money in order to make it ‘look like’ they are doing something about it?

If this campaign was targeted by severity then really, all of these billboards should be removed and used to form a massive wall enclosing the UK head offices of the likes of Vodafone, Amazon, Starbucks and the rest, let alone the ‘advisers’ who help them steal billions of pounds from the economy (Deloitte, for example).

But no, obviously all the missing money in this country is tied up in ‘cash in hand’ labourer jobs in the post-industrial north. If only Stoke would cough up, we’d all be better off – come up here and look for yourselves, see what you’re missing.

Whatever the reasons, isn’t it just massively unfair that the rest of us have to have our public spaces plastered in damning accusatory and pointless propaganda? Advertising is garish and brash enough as it is without adding Big Brother style iconography and fear to the mix.

I don’t want those feelings of guilt inside of me. Even if there was a real problem with undeclared income in this area (which I’m guessing, compared to high finance tax evasion, there isn’t) – what is a poster going to do about it, other than make everyone else’s life just that little bit more unpleasant?

Anyway – I write this in the hope that some of you may agree with me, and that some of you may well have some dealings with or influence over stupid ideas like this, and if so, may raise objections in the future. If more people in the planning stages spoke up and said ‘this is stupid’: maybe these things wouldn’t get passed in the first place.

I don’t want to walk in the suspicion and guilt of others. Life’s too short.

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