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'This Space Available' and the problem with billboards

People sit in lounge chairs on Broadway in Times Square after it was converted to a pedestrian zone May 26, 2009 in New York City.

Jeremy Hobson: Take a look around you today, and see how many billboards you can spot. You'll probably lose count pretty quick, because they are everywhere.

Well a new documentary that's premiering today at the Doc NYC Festival here in New York, explores just how fast billboard advertising has taken over public space.

It's called "This Space Available," and we're joined now by the director, Gwenaelle Gobe. Good morning.

Gwenaelle Gobe: Good morning, Jeremy.

Hobson: Well let's focus on the specifics. I drive by a famous building in Los Angeles all the time, it's on the corner of Wilshire and La Brea; it's an old building and it's got a big lit-up Samsung billboard on the top. What is wrong with that in principle?

Gobe: There's nothing wrong with buying and selling. But there is something wrong when wherever you go, whatever you do, you are treated as a consumer. There are places where that is appropriate, and there are places where that's not. There's a problem when students from a class don't recognize the trees that are in their neighborhoods, but if you show them an alphabet with just one letter picked out from logos, they will recognize every single brand.

Trailer from This space available on Vimeo.

Hobson: But it's not just billboards that are doing that obviously, that's something that's coming from television and from magazines and from images that they see all over the place. Why are billboards so much worse in your mind than the rest of the advertising we see?

Gobe: Because they're occupying a space that doesn't really belong to advertising; it belongs to everyone.

Hobson: Well let's talk about one of the most interesting parts of your film, which is Sao Paulo, Brazil, a place that has banned all billboard advertising.

Gobe: I think there was just too much of it, and it wasn't about who was making the best message or the best advertising. It was who was putting up the biggest billboard in the most places. There's a story of a bank billboard being bigger than the actual bank building. You couldn't see the city because it was covered in billboards. The mayor passed a law, and then everything was down in six months, which was pretty radical.

Jordan Seiler from This space available on Vimeo.

Hobson: Do you think that anything like that could ever happen here in the United States? In the advertising center of New York, for instance?

Gobe: I really do believe that it could happen, because it's not good for brands to be a pollution. I really believe in the passion of New Yorkers, and they love their city. I don't think they want it to look like any other city; I think they want it to look like New York.

Hobson: Gwenaelle Gobe, director of the new documentary film, "This Space Available." Thank you so much for joining us.

Gobe: Thank you Jeremy.

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