The Equity Factor

Who Wants to Live in Times Square?

The tradeoffs of selling city streets for LED ads.

NYC’s Times Square (Chensiyuan)

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Ads have plastered city bus stops and benches for years. But now, some municipalities are turning to alternative spots in public space to shake down advertisers and, they argue, increase city revenues. Perhaps the most egregious is in Philadelphia, where a proposal for LED statues populated with advertising is being touted as strategic economic development. So how long until our cities turn into a Times Square-esque hellscape littered with seizure-inducing advertisements?

Not anytime soon, thank god. It’s yet another example of municipal leaders championing some new foolhardy approach, like police officers on Segways — run for your life! — of how a city should go about its business.

“I feel like this is a recurring theme anytime cities are in a cash crunch,” Brian Morrissey, editor-in-chief at Digiday, wrote in an email. “Suddenly someone gets the bright idea to put ads on school buses and whatnot. The problem, beyond over commercialization, is advertising and working with brands isn’t as easy as it looks. Ads are seen as easy money, but that’s not the case.”

The Philadelphia proposal says the LED installations — hyped as “the first of their kind in North America” — could earn the city $54 million in revenues over the course of 20 years. Nowhere did it say in the press release, or when we called, whom exactly those revenues would come from. It is, as Morrissey posits, not as easy as cities seem to think it is.

Meanwhile, in Cincinnati the old forms of urban advertising — the aforementioned bus shelters and benches — have fallen victim to a silly and byzantine ordinance approved last January, according to Urban Cincy. Now the metro system and bike share can’t get advertising revenues needed for annual operating expenses.

So Urban Cincy has proposed a comprehensive Urban Advertising Program “that protects residents from unsightly additions in their neighborhoods, while also preserving the flexibility for the city and its various agencies to collect revenues that reduce the burden placed upon taxpayers.” This is something I’d like to see more cities do: Assure that the public space does not look like the set of Minority Report.

Urban Cincy kingpin Randy Simes wants to see the city lease its advertising assets but keep them limited to what has been fair game for years: bus benches, shelters, newsstands, bike share — all the familiar places you tend to see Nicolas Cage movie posters defamed. The idea, Simes argues, is to work together on one unified leasing strategy, which, he feels, “will increase the value of public right-of-way advertising.”

That’s the approach cities need to take. Work with the advertising assets you already have and leverage them. Denouncing ambitious and overaggressive city advertising isn’t backwards thinking. It’s not get off my lawn rhetoric. It’s looking out for the best interest of public space.

I asked Morrissey if we should be worried about the future of cities. Are our cities going to eventually morph into one big garish billboard? He was pragmatic. It’s a matter of the market, and city lawmakers aren’t exactly Don Draper: “So I think the realities of the market will keep cities from sliding into sponsored dystopias.”

Please share any photos or stories of awful advertising schemes in your cities in the comments below.

The Equity Factor is made possible with the support of the Surdna Foundation.

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Bill Bradley is a writer and reporter living in Brooklyn. His work has appeared in Deadspin, GQ, and Vanity Fair, among others.

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Tags: philadelphiaeconomic developmentequity factorcincinnati

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