Ads on city bridge houses - and where else?

November 11, 2011

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Chicago taxpayers might expect the city's massive budget deficit to result in tax hikes, fee increases or layoffs. But Mayor Rahm Emanuel's plan to sell advertising on city property could change the very look of the city.

Emanuel's office announced this week they've struck a 30-day deal with Bank of America to wrap advertisements around the two historic stone Wabash bridge houses in the Loop. Neither party would disclose how much money the agreement is worth.

But Emanuel is counting on $25 million dollars from that kind of marketing to help close a projected $635.7 million deficit for 2012.

And his proposal doesn't stop with bridge houses: A measure now before the City Council would give the Emanuel administration authority to market literally any asset owned by the city, physical or otherwise. Those assets could include parking meter pay boxes, vehicles, the city's website - even buildings, including police stations and City Hall, said Chief Financial Officer Lois Scott.

"We are not going to leave any stone unturned, in terms of trying to find value for our taxpayers, to protect the services for our citizens and really do what’s right here," Scott said in an interview with WBEZ.

Scott said the city came up with that $25 million target, in part, by talking with industry experts and looking at other city agencies that already sell ads, such as the Chicago Transit Authority and the Park District. Emanuel’s budget office says it doesn’t yet have a detailed break down of exactly what property it hopes to market, or for how much. Specific deals largely depend on demand, Scott said.

Former Mayor Richard Daley's administration pitched an idea last year for companies to pay the city for the right to decorate the Chicago River bridge houses around major holidays. The city contracted with Fresh Picked Media Corp., a Lincolnshire, Ill.-based company, to find potential investors. But the plan never went any where until the Bank of America deal.

Fresh Picked Media is still contracted with the city to broker its municipal advertising deals. It gets to keep 25 percent of the revenue from any deal.

Meanwhile Scott said her office is studying what other cities have done – say, London’s sponsorships of the 2012 Olympics, some privately-funded public bathrooms in Paris, or New York City's aggressive marketing program under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

"What makes the city marketing thing compelling is when you marry those physical assets with the city’s brand, and its need to serve certain causes," said  Joe Perello, who served as New York City’s first-ever chief marketing officer between 2003 and 2006.

He said municipal marketing, when it’s done right, is more than just slapping an ad on the side of a trash bin.

Take for example, a deal he cut in 2004 between New York City and The History Channel: The city got $3.5 million to restore some historic houses, as well as $15 million worth of free TV ad time to promote tourism. The network, meanwhile, got all the PR and good corporate karma that came with the partnership.

It worked because New Yorkers recognized the connection between The History Channel and historic preservation, Perello said.

"The relevance is incredibly important because folks don’t wanna be sold out. And they’re right not to want that," he said.

So how do you prevent Chicago from feeling like one big NASCAR race?

City officials say they’re looking to agencies such as the CTA, which prohibits certain types of ads: no booze, no tobacco and nothing too sexy or violent.

Chicagoans may have to put up with seeing more ads as they move about the city, Scott said. But the upside is that it will prevent the city from having to raise taxes or cut services, she said.

But there could be a hidden cultural cost, said Terry O'Reilly, a long-time ad man and host of the CBC's "Age of Persuasion," a public radio show about the advertising industry.

"There'll be great advertising and there’ll be bad advertising, but there is one thing for sure: There’s going to be more advertising," he said.

There is a cost to municipal marketing, particularly on city buildings, O'Reilly said.

"That is the downside to making that deal, is you’re going to – I don’t know if 'deface' is too strong a word, but you’re going to clutter up ... some long-standing visual beauty," he said.

Whether Mayor Emanuel's marketing plan moves forward is still in the hands of the City Council, though there seems to be little opposition. Aldermen could approve it when they vote on the mayor's 2012 budget proposal, which is expected to take place Wednesday.