Product placement at City Hall

by Phil Hardwick

Published: April 17,2011

Tags: advertising, MBJ column, Phil Hardwick

Advertising is now so ubiquitous that no one in any place is spared from messaging by commercial interests. It is estimated that the typical person will be exposed to 300 to 700 messages per day. And that is for people who do not surf the Internet. Will city hall be the next hallowed ground to be penetrated by advertising?

The answer to that question is — probably. Cities everywhere are exploring new ways to increase revenue. Municipalities have long sanctioned advertising on city property. Is there a city bus or subway in America that does not contain display advertising?  And how about bus stop shelters or public benches?  Naming rights are part of the new revenue currency in many cities. Is there a city-owned sports stadium that does not have a commercial name on the facility or the field?  Attendees at conferences of city officials encounter numerous vendors at booths and in person offering to increase the city coffers through advertising. Meetings of all types outside city hall are sponsored by local businesses.

It is quite possible that the so-called perfect storm of local government advertising is developing. Cities need revenue as never before to maintain even basic services. Traditional sources of revenue are tapped out. Taxpayers revolt at the mere whisper of raising taxes. Marketers have every way imaginable to deliver advertising. And of course there is no shortage of companies that want to reach their potential customers by any means, especially if there are new methods and venues.

It is fascinating to see new and creative ways that advertisers are discovering to get their messages to consumers. For example, Amazon.com just announced that a new, cheaper Kindle e-reader will soon be available. It will cost $25 less than the current lowest-priced model because it will have advertising messages on the home page of the device. Will Web pages of local city government soon be festooned with Google adsense messages?  And how about those Facebook city pages that contain advertising down the right hand side?  Will there be a way for the city to share in some of that revenue?  Will the callers to city hall be put on hold to listen to a commercial message from one of the city’s vendors?  But will the inner sanctum of city hall – that sacred space where the governing body meets to hear motions and cast votes — be infiltrated by advertising?

Do not look now, but several cities are considering just such an idea or have proposals to bring advertising inside city hall. Exhibit A is Haverhill, Massachusetts, which is considering one of the more creative ways to increase revenue. It seems that the carpets in city are considered by some to be “dirty, lumpy and smelly.”  City officials have received an offer from an animal rights organization to replace the carpets, according to a March 27, 2011 article in the online edition of the Eagle Tribune. The catch is that the organization desires to have a message on the new carpeting, specifically an image that would feature a blond woman wearing a bikini made of lettuce, with the message: “Tread Lightly: Go Vegan.” For the record, the mayor is against it.

Recently, the Evanston, Indiana City Council approved an advertising policy statement setting out some ground rules for what types of advertising it might be willing to accept. It is exploring the possibility of putting advertising on city facilities downtown and along the lakefront. A candidate for city clerk in Chicago proposed turning city stickers into money makers.  Chicago sells 1.25 million city stickers each year at a cost of $75 for smaller passenger vehicles and $120 for SUV’s and other vehicles weighing more than 4,500 pounds. The $100 million goes into a Vehicle Tax Fund used to repair Chicago streets. Mayor Daley had also discussed allowing private companies to place holiday decorations and their corporate logos on bridge houses along the Chicago River. By the way, that candidate won the race for city clerk.

The Town of Chesapeake City, Maryland is initiating a landscape beautification program for its outdoor public places, such as parks and sidewalks. It is seeking financial contributions from local businesses to help defray the cost of maintaining these areas. According to the city Web site, “In recognition of your donations, a sign will be placed at the beautification site listing the contributor. Please consider this great opportunity to support your Town, advertise your business and provide beautification at the same time.”  Nothing like a sign next to landscaping to really beautify an outdoor area.

If cities want to increase revenue from advertising they need to study New York City. The Metropolitan Transit Authority in The Big Apple  “…earns more than $100 million per year from sales of advertising space, mostly through traditional print media, but we continue to map out new ways to maximize the value of our physical assets,” said MTA Chairman Jay Walder in a recent press release. “One way we are doing that is by creating more dynamic advertising opportunities.”    The release went on to say that among the MTA’s recent initiatives designed to increase ad revenue are station domination campaigns in which advertisers are invited to take over entire stations and digital displays on trains, buses and stations. The MTA is also exploring 3D images and in-tunnel advertising.

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