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Rahm Emanuel Tue Dec 18 2012

Chicago™: Now with More Ads!

Last week you may have missed Mayor Emanuel's latest city privatization deal. The Chicago Reader reports on the recent agreement Emanuel presented to "rent public space to a private billboard company for a guaranteed $155 million over the next 20 years." Concerns from aldermen, particularly from the practically-tenured Ed Burke, centered around the confusing legal documentation and the fact that the deal was struck without a proper structured bidding process.

Privatization is the modus operandi of the Emanuel administration, inherited from a clear precedent set forth by former Mayor Daley's policies. The city is broke and many private businesses are ready to put the capital up front to solve our problems -- for a small profit, and sometimes a large cost for us. Several of these recent privatization contracts stand to outlive the people who signed them as well. The Reader reminds of the 99-year-long lease of the Skyway. There's others too. Such as the parking meter deal -- just a few years into a 75-year contract and already the city and the company Chicago Parking Meters LLC have begun to sue each other. At least we only have 71 more years to go.

Chicagoans ought to be concerned about Emanuel's deal to sell off more parts of the city to advertisers for two reasons. One, because of the familiar sentiment that it was brokered under questionable circumstances. And two, because we should start discussing how far we want this city-brought-to-you-by-our-sponsors to go. That second part isn't an easy discussion to frame; calling that process nebulous would be putting it mildly.

To begin to understand what potentially is at stake, we should discuss the current state of advertising. We also should discuss how we apply restraint with advertising. And if you're trying to figure out who will exercise it, I'll give you a hint: it's not going to be the ad-buyers. Many years ago, marketing (and media-buying) was a much more straightforward process. Run ads in traditional media like newspapers, television and radio and your audience will pay attention because there wasn't much else in competition for those ears and eyeballs. Discussing the changes that have come in the information age is redundant on a web-based community journalism publication, beyond stressing that attention is becoming a very rare and highly difficult commodity for advertisers to get their hands around. New and pervasive ways that advertisers find to capture your attention signifies the desperation they face in trying to influence consumers.

And there certainly are new and bizarre opportunities out there. In 2009, KFC started filling potholes and repairing fire hydrants in Louisville at the mere cost of having their logo spray painted over every hole and fire hydrant they fixed. In Cleveland, train line naming rights were auctioned off to the highest bidder. Here, the North/Clybourn station received an Apple makeover in 2010 for nearly $4 million. Following soon will be the renaming of CTA stations with commercial messaging. The public isn't likely to embrace those with much enthusiasm. White Sox fans may appreciate the renovations at U.S. Cellular field but still probably call it Comiskey amongst themselves. And the "Willis" Tower was received with lukewarm support, though neither of those are public properties.

When it comes to public properties, residents deserve a little more of a say in how we allow our public space to be used (or left alone). The Mayor Daley/Emanuel graffiti blasters will remove unwanted gang tags and other spraypainted nuisances in lightening fast response times. But if we decide the latest billboard installment is an eyesore, we may have to wait for a potential near-century long contract to expire. There are less obvious consequences to the trend of selling off our public space too, like pushing our city deeper into a culture of hypercommercialism. If there's any question where an American society filled with overconsumption, staggering debt, and living outside one's means originates, there's a reasonable chance that living in an environment where commercial messaging is crammed into every available venue plays a role.

It's not a given that modern society or capitalist economies can't exist without pervasive advertising in their public spaces. A few quick examples: In college, I backpacked around the entire island of Ireland. Traveling between cities, I was stunned by the absence of any billboards in the countryside. The landscape is what you would expect, with green, gently rolling hills dotted with undisturbed Celtic ruins from a different era, a deliberate policy by the Irish to preserve their public space. The untouched beauty of their countryside would be thoroughly cheapened and spoiled by our American treatment of public space -- it's an opportunity after all! On the other side of the world, Brazil has begun the process of de-advertising themselves. In fact, Rio de Janeiro has been leading a campaign to remove all "visual pollution" from their landscape. By the way, this is the same Rio that edged out Chicago for the 2016 Summer Olympics bid.

The real question we need to ask of ourselves and our elected officials is, where do we draw the line? It's difficult to beg restraint from a city that puts animated digital ads on buses, much to the disappointment of short-attention spanned, easily distracted drivers like myself. If the city adopts a policy of selling off every part of itself that can be bought, it might get exactly what it asks for: a lot of eager buyers and a once-beautiful metropolis slathered in advertising. Some Chicago architects consider the recent trend nothing short of a "visual crime."

Ultimately, if we don't want our city to look like the yellow pages, we citizens should assume some of the blame and undertake the responsibility to reverse course. The budget shortfalls that these ideas have set out to overcome could likely be offset by more revenue, and we do have a say on who we put in charge to make public space decisions when we go to the polls, even if sometimes it doesn't feel that way.

Until then, don't get too used to the view.

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chigal / December 19, 2012 4:28 PM

Great article. Reminded me of that Morgan Spurlock documentary. I suppose we'll be the greatest city ever sold.

Taxpayer / December 21, 2012 3:20 PM

It's better than raising property taxes.

Do we really want to live in a Chicago where the poor and elderly are pushed from their homes?

I do not.

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