Times Recognizes Philly’s Knack for Whoring

We're a shining example to other cities.

It’s usually encouraging to see Philadelphia on the front page of the New York Times, getting props for leading, not following, a national trend. This week, though, the ink was more cringe-inducing than cheer-worthy. We’re apparently among the vanguard of broke cities who are pimping out public space to advertisers. The photo that accompanied the Times story was a fire hydrant adorned with the face of Colonel Sanders and topped with an empty bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken Fiery Grilled Wings. Not exactly the kind of image the GPTMC is trying to promote.

Our city started flirting with corporate sponsorship when SEPTA agreed to change Pattison Station, the last stop on the Broad Street Line, to “AT&T Station.” If you’ve taken that ride to the stadiums, you know it’s hard to miss the assault of advertising when you step off the train. The telecom company’s globe logo is everywhere, and if you didn’t know better, you might think the Flyers who play nearby had changed their colors to orange, blue and white. The Times reports fare cards have McDonald’s ads on them. So let’s get this straight—sugary drinks bad, Big Macs good? On the national scene, KFC is credited as the true pioneer in public-space whoring, paying for space on manhole covers and hydrants across Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee. Now this trend is spreading to other cash-strapped municipalities looking for a quick way to close budget gaps. In Baltimore, they’re considering ads on fire trucks. Syracuse might slap logos on its rescue helicopter to keep it airborne. Chicago is prepared to sell naming rights to its el stops. Imagine if they figured out where Harrison Ford was hiding out in The Fugitive by the sound of the train at the Cool Ranch Doritos Station?

I suppose if you’re bleeding out on the side of the road after a car accident, you won’t really care if the Jagermeister Chopper gives you a lift to the ER. But naming rights have already chipped away at the civic pride we feel for our stadiums and ballparks, not to mention how it’s ruined their nicknames. The Vet and the Spectrum were classics; the Linc works, but “the Bank” hasn’t caught on for the ballpark. The home of the Sixers and Flyers has switched monikers a dizzying four times in 16 years. And try saying “I’ll meet you at the Susquehanna Bank Center” three times fast. Aesthetics aside, the slippery slope argument here is a compelling one. Where does it stop? I imagine a day when you’ll cross the Outback Steakhouse Bridge, pay $100 for two hours at a Pepto-Bismol parking meter on Walnut Street By Planters, take a stroll through Five Hour Energy Square and end with a tour of the Liberty (Mutual) Bell.

There’s also the question of exactly how much money these ads will raise. In Baltimore, fire company closings are expected to save the city upwards of $6 million per year. That’s equivalent to what Cleveland will receive from the Cleveland Clinic for transit naming rights over the next 25 years. Economically, this corporate co-opting is worse than just an eyesore—it’s a budgetary Band-Aid, not a solution. It sends an uncomfortable message as well. Let’s say there’s a hold-up at a 7-11 and police cruisers that arrive have images of Shorti hoagies on their hoods. Does the owner wonder if the response time would be faster if he was running a Wawa?

I’m always a little puzzled when I see someone driving a car with one of those wrap ads on it—a guy on the Schuylkill who’s turned his Prius into a rolling billboard for Monster.com. That look would probably be an improvement for my ride (’94 Chevy Cavalier with roll-down windows and a tape deck; please form a line, ladies), but not for most of the driving public. Times are tough, though, and that’s a personal decision, not one made by politicians or civic leaders. Talk of turning the eastern stretch of Market Street into a billboard zone would only make a miserable corridor look even worse, like a low-rent Times Square. If an ad here or a renamed train stop there will keep a school or a fire station open for the long haul, it’s worth discussing. But now, it’s little more than a lazy way to make a buck, one that costs us in other ways that are trickier to add up.