Chicago Hires An Advertising Consultant, Should Other Cities Do The Same?

Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel estimates that Chicago can raise $25 million by letting companies advertise on city assets. Chicago has now hired an advertising consultant at a cost of $144,000 to help the City generate advertising revenue.

Other municipalities have considered creative ways to generate advertising revenue such as:

– transit riders in Philadelphia buy fare cards blazoned with ads for McDonald’s and ride the Broad Street Line to AT&T Station (formerly Pattison Station)

– KFC placed its logo on manhole covers and fire hydrants in several cities in Indiana, Kentucky and Tennessee after paying to fill potholes and replace hydrants.

– Pizza chains now advertise on some school buses in some communities

– Baltimore is exploring placing ads on City fire trucks to prevent closing fire houses

Some people are very troubled about having private companies advertise on public property. With cities across the country struggling to survive and some even filing bankruptcy, should more cities explore generating revenue by selling advertising on government assets?

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I’m a big believer that cities should look at ways to increase revenue (and not just cut costs) so I like what Chicago is doing. There’s always a fine line about what’s appropriate with advertising but it’s usually worse in idea than practice (for example, we are used to ads on city buses, metro, waiting stops)

I think the trick is finding the best win/win/win. What types of advertising are companies willing to pay for that makes the most money for the city and is seen as least offensive by citizens? I’d also make sure to have smart advertising people working for the city (like Chicago) to make sure you are extracting the most amount of revenue and understand how advertising agencies and clients think.

Samuel Lovett

I think putting ads on school busses is bad form, especially when the ads target school-aged children (like a pizza ad, in the example above). But I do think harnessing advertising revenue on state and local property is a great opportunity when done well, and when there is control over which companies and organizations are buying advertising.

(Example: I worked for a public agency, making internet videos, and one of our videos happened to go semi-viral. YouTube contacted us and gave us options for letting them advertise on our video page. It seemed like a good opportunity to harness revenue for the cause of our video, without doing any extra work. But not knowing what the advertising would be for, we didn’t do anything with advertising.)

Faye Newsham

I was expecting an entirely different content discussion… Chicago has long had a poor public image related to her politicians. I’m glad to see they are generating business but I think there needs to be a lot of safeguards in place to prevent circumstances such as Sam notes. No pizza ads on school busses, thank you!

Peter Sperry

Deriving revenue from voluntary payments by customers who recieve fair value in exchange is always the prefered method of funding government services. If advertisers are willing to pay to get their message out; by all means take their money. Every dollar they pay is one less that will need to be taken from taxpayers by compulsion. Government jurisdictions should excercize the same judgements regarding content as television, newspaper and online venues. They can and should apply some limits but avoid going overboard with restrictions. Personally, I have no problem with pizza ads but giving preference to test prep service ads might be understandable.

Steve Radick

Considering I now work in the advertising industry in Chicago, I have a much different perspective on this than when I was working for a government contractor in DC. I’m glad to see that the city is looking at other ways to generate revenue, and I’m even happier to see that they’ve hired a professional who (hopefully) understands all of the various issues this raises (you guys have covered some here already). This is an opportunity for Chicago and its local brands to rethink the relationship between government and advertising. It should be about more than putting logos on manhole covers and ads on CTA trains. Think bigger. Think differently. Think beautifully. Similar to how European cities used to commission artists to create paintings and sculptures to beautify their cities, Chicago should do think similarly – this shouldn’t just be about raising more money (here’s a space, it’s $5K to put your logo on it) but about creating true partnerships with the city’s brands to create something of value. What if the city identified a bridge covered in graffiti and told Kraft that they could advertise on that bridge, but instead of a straight product push, it would only accept CSR-type ads or artistic murals, etc.? Force the advertisers to stop being lazy (e.g., buy our product, now!!!) and get more creative about what they represent as a brand (e.g., we care about this city and we want to make it more beautiful and useful to you)?

Gov Girl

I think there are MANY fine lines that need to be drawn here.

Is it OK for a main government website, for example, to have advertising? Will the have a Ronald McDonald’s face next to the Mayor’s smiling face?

My concern is that advertising most often cheapens the face of that governmental unit and lessens the percieved authority of that agency. Don’t you see government information (such as policy, or instructions for a form) as being less credible if you see a big ad next it? I usually think I have hit a fake site if I see an ad. There are bank ads in my property tax bill and it does kinda bug me. Starts to look like those credit card statements you get that tumble out with it all sorts of offers and deals on shiny flyers.

To me, it also says inefficiency and poor administration of that agency. If you cannot plan your agency budget to be able to handle the costs of running the core elements of that agency (and today I include a website in that) then I don’t think hiding that weakness in advertising revenue will fix what ails you. I don’t mind paying more taxes if it is truly needed to provide better services and do the job well. I will pay an online payment processing fee to help pay for that convenience of not waiting in line somewhere. But I do not want to look at an advertisement on a website when I am trying to find out how much a rabies shot is for my pet. It is a cheap out that rarely pays off to the extent that they are promised (trust me). It’s not a creative source of new revenue – its laziness and poor management.

I know that a website is just one example and there are lots of other ad-space opportunities out there. (What if the copy cars had taxi tents…this arrest brought to you by Cirque du Soleil!) I agree with Steve that if a government is to go into anywhere in this area, they should really take on the challenge of doing it in context and excute it creatively. It will enrich the identities of both the government body and the advertiser and not insult its constituents/customers. I hope that the creatives brought in for Chicago will really push to find some great ways to do it. If they do, I will respect the government more and I will probably support that company.