A lighthearted look at news, events, culture and everyday life in New York.
By Nina Pajak
Several years ago, when I was on vacation in Uruguay and Argentina during my honeymoon, my husband and I noticed a strange thing happening in our seaside resort town. Everything was sponsored by everyone. We’d see storefronts covered in logos for beer, cars, and sunscreen. What we thought was an auto dealership was actually a cafe. We attempted to follow signs to a bank, only to discover that it was a gym. On the hunt for flip flops, a surf company’s branding mislead us to a beach bar. Beaches were brought to us by Citi and HSBC. Public maps were sponsored by fitness equipment. It was possible that one restaurant was actually named “Hawaiian Tropic.”
In Bueno Aires, street signs were courtesy of Nokia and Claro. It took quite a bit of getting used to for us to see this type of municipal advertising. We found the whole thing sort of hilarious.
Little did I know that some cities around the United States have already gotten on the branding bandwagon. A recent article in The New York Times explores this phenomenon, which has brought KFC-branded fire hydrants and manhole covers in towns in Indiana, Tennessee, and Kentucky (obviously), in exchange for the fast food chain paying to replace said fire hydrants and fix potholes. Baltimore is considering selling branding and advertising rights in order to offset the costs required to save a floundering fire department. Other cities sell naming rights to transit stations and public spaces. In Brooklyn, the Atlantic Ave. subway station has been renamed to include the Barclays Center, which cost the company $4 million over twenty years.
So what do we, the consumers, the “straphangers,” the pedestrians, the every day citizens think of living in a city in which everything from school buses to rescue helicopters to police cars could be brandished with advertisements and sponsorships? People do bristle when their time-honored institutions “sell out.” Who likes having to say “Citi Field” instead of Shea Stadium? But do I care if the 72nd street subway stop becomes the Doritos/72nd street subway stop if it means the MTA finally gets a little extra money for repairs without another fare hike? Do I mind if a fire engine comes to rescue me, and they’ve been brought to me by Chase Bank? I might say “ew” or “wha?” or “thank you! What’s up with your truck?” (to the firefighters), but I think the short answer is actually “no.”
Sure, the concept lacks a certain element of elegance, charm, and integrity. Fine, perhaps we’re so inundated with advertising—both overt and insidious—that we’ve nearly hit capacity. We no longer know what it means to live in a world in which we’re not constantly being pelted with pitches of all sorts. Our world is gradually spinning closer and closer to resembling some sort of 1980’s post-apocalyptic vision of America. But ultimately, cities need money. And it seems like asking for that money from its inhabitants is generally unpopular. This type of creative revenue pumping not only means much-needed repairs to flat-broke public works, but it also means incentivizing corporate fat cats (boo, hiss) to pay into something that helps people (hooray, bravo).
Besides, I’ve always wondered what it might be like to live in the actual town of Applebee’s, with its local heroes and population-wide devotion to youth sports. Sort of like Pleasantville, but with more ranch dressing. Yum.
Dear Readers: While I am rarely at a loss for words, I’m always grateful for column ideas. Please feel free to e-mail me your suggestions.
Nina Pajak is a writer and publishing professional living with her husband on the Upper West Side.
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