Apr 04 2012

“What did God make first? The billboard or L.A.?” – Reflections on Gobé

Published by at 7:55 am under Reflection Blog

This Space Available was a very interesting film presentation by film maker, Gwenaëlle Gobé, detailing the grassroots movements around the globe combating “visual pollution.” Throughout the film, Gobé travels to New York City, Los Angeles, Toronto, Houston, Moscow, China (I didn’t write down which city), Mumbai and Venice to examine the problem and discover what the local people are doing about the problem, She also examines exactly who those activists are. Sometimes, that information is quite surprising.

The early part of the film looks at advertisers mold their product to maximize exposure in a given environment. From stories-high animated billboards in NYC’s Times Square to vehicle-mounted rolling billboards in car-centric Los Angeles, Gobé demonstrates that it is essentially impossible to escape advertising in public spaces. Though I don’t find the technology at all shocking, I was previously unaware of an advertising technology in which a camera captures a subject’s image as they step in front of the unit, then transmits the image to a computer, which quickly analyzes the image to assess the subject’s demographics and then the computer queues up an ad that is targeted to the specific subject based on the data that was just gathered. The computer gauges the subject’s response, as well, to maximize future advertising efforts. It’s not a whole lot different that the way computer cookies work, except a user can turn cookies off on his computer. This type of big-brother set up is completely involuntary. This segment also highlighted the statistics that surround outdoor advertising and distracted driving. The statistics were clear – it poses a hazard to drivers.

One of the most interesting parts of the documentary showcases the efforts of NYC’s Jordan Seiler. He has worked tirelessly, uniting volunteers in an effort to rid the city of illegal advertising. Due to space constraints, I won’t detail his efforts here, but their methods are quite creative (in a multitude of ways). The thing that I found most distressing was that these crusaders are frequently arrested and face fines and imprisonment, but consequences almost never befall the illegal advertisers who are perpetuating the urban blight.

I would like to learn more about President Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Highway Beautification Act”. I never really realized it, but the billboards along interstate highways really are, for the most part, restricted to logo signs advertising food, gas and lodging at upcoming exits. There are, of course, more exceptions to that, but travelers still don’t see a lot of advertisements for consumable commodities.

One state representative in Mumbai brought up a very interesting point. Of outdoor advertising, she asked, “which classes of society can write their messages on the city and which classes of society are marginalized?” I had not really considered this question before, but it is a VERY valid observation.

One advertiser in LA, I believe it was Rick Robinson, cited statistics on how many people actually like billboard advertising, and the statistic was rather shocking. I’d be interested in learning more about how that data was gathered. I will submit that there are billboard campaigns that I find appealing, intriguing, or entertaining, but at the same time, I do completely concur that the scope and breadth of outdoor advertising has gotten completely out of hand. One series of ad campaigns that are usually quite clever are the Ad Councils Public Service Announcements (PSA) on a variety of topics. Just this weekend, I saw a new one that made me and my daughter laugh out loud. Promoting preventive health measures, a solid red billboard displays in bold white letters the alarming admonition: “This year thousands of men will die from stubbornness.” I can think of plenty more of these catchy, attention-grabbing PSAs, and this is one form of advertising I can certainly appreciate.

This was a very interesting and informative film and I’m really looking forward to sharing it with people whenever it becomes available for wider public dissemination.

I’ll close my blog post with the same Ogden Nash poem that Gobé used to close her film. I hadn’t seen it before, but it was quite appropriately prophetic.

“I think that I shall never see
a billboard as lovely as a tree.
In fact, unless those billboards fall,
I’ll never see a tree at all.”

– Sara

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