Pulse: Chatter: Branding Philly

Imagine driving from an Eagles game to Cherry Hill not so many years from now. You leave Lincoln Financial Field, cross the Comcast Walt Whitman Bridge, continue driving on Commerce Bank 295 north, and exit at the Verizon 34B. Hopefully, you don’t encounter any trouble along the way, though if you do, you can always use one of the Independence Blue Cross emergency roadside call boxes to contact help.

From buses to boxer shorts, there are few spaces unadorned by advertising anymore. And yet big, government-funded assets — roads, bridges, hospitals, libraries, museums, parks—remain relatively (some might say blissfully) commerce-free. But if local real estate mogul David G. Marshall has his way, that may change. The branding of public property, says Marshall, is “an idea whose time has come.” Earlier this year, he formed a new company, Media Assets, to see if the idea can fly.

In theory, Media Assets would broker corporate sponsorships of public works as a way to offset costs to the taxpayers who use the resources. Struggling assets — the Pennsylvania Turnpike, for example — would have sponsors finance projects like refurbishing tollbooths, beautifying medians and repairing roads in return for banners giving credit to the sponsors. The public would get a pass on tax hikes or toll spikes to pay for the upgrades, and the people who use the Turnpike would be so happy about the improvements—and not having to pay for them—that they would go out and buy stuff from Pepsi, Pampers, Motorola, or whoever sponsored the fix.

All of this makes sense on paper. But in a town already overrun with billboard advertising—much of it illegal—couldn’t over-branding undermine whatever bit of dignity Philly has managed to retain?

Marshall says he’s sensitive to such concerns, and that icons like the Ben Franklin Bridge would never be touched (though his PR man, Marc Brownstein, seemed excited to rattle off a hypothetical “Pepsi Ben Franklin Bridge”). Even so, the strategy seems fraught with potential conflicts: One person’s pragmatism, after all, is another’s sacrilege. It was just two years ago that Major League Baseball announced a deal to put small ads for the film Spider-Man 2 on bases during one weekend of inter-league games — only to back out because of fan uproar. Moreover, it’s hard to imagine that local politicians won’t be leery of looking like they’re selling off civic icons to the highest bidder.

Marshall acknowledges an unhealthy “potential for proliferation,” but stresses that sites and sponsors will be carefully matched. “We will only allow quality companies that have a reason to be there.” Don’t expect to see the Tanqueray Turnpike, in other words. Adds Marshall’s son and business partner, Stephen, “There’s a proper balance. We don’t want to have the ‘tree streets’ of Philadelphia renamed for the corporations of Philadelphia — that would be very bad.”