Los Angeles Mayor James K. Hahn and Councilman Eric Garcetti want to sell off the city.
On Tuesday, at their instigation, a City Council committee kicked around the idea of creating an official city beverage or setting up some other kind of licensing deal. From there, it's only a short step to selling off the naming rights to municipal buildings, parks or neighborhoods. Who can doubt that that's where they're heading?
Yes, the city faces a $250-million deficit next year. But the idea of granting naming rights to the highest bidder is a recipe for civic humiliation. The city's participation in any marketing deal will provide an implicit or explicit endorsement of a corporation and its products.
It's happened elsewhere. Snapple is the official beverage of New York City, with the company paying $166 million over five years for that designation. Coca-Cola has signed marketing deals with Huntington Beach (for $600,000 a year), and East Lansing, Mich. (for $2 million over 10 years), while PepsiCo has agreements with San Diego (up to $23.6 million over 12 years), and Fresno (for $625,000 over five years).
How will citizens of Los Angeles feel about promoting big polluters, corporate welfare recipients or corporate felons? Denver's Coors Field is named after the Adolph Coors Co., which paid a $200,000 criminal fine and pleaded guilty to two criminal misdemeanor counts of contaminating groundwater and failing to report the contamination to regulatory authorities.
These kinds of deals are public relations disasters waiting to happen. Today's big advertiser could be tomorrow's big perp. Some Houston residents thought the name Enron Field had a nice cash register ring to it when the company agreed in 2000 to pay $100 million over 30 years for the naming rights to the major league baseball park. Not long afterward, there were red faces all around, and the field is now known as Minute Maid Park.
The rash of corporate scandals that gripped the country was part of the reason San Francisco rejected the sale of naming rights to Candlestick Park, the first professional sports stadium in the United States to return to a popular name. The change was made because of citizen protest.
Then there is the ethics of endorsing products you don't believe in. There is already an epidemic of obesity in this country. The Los Angeles Unified School District has taken the courageous step of banning the sale of soda pop in all public schools. The mayor would do well to ponder this while he considers creating the city's new "official" drink. Does he want to help address such problems as obesity? Or does he want to serve as official enabler for the advertising that helps make them worse?
These marketing deals are sure to create messy conflicts of interest, too. When the Bigbucks Corp. comes to testify at a municipal building named after itself, will there not be a lingering suspicion that some voices count more than others in this particular venue? Could judges and juries really be impartial when listening to lawyers argue cases in a court building named after their law firm?
Los Angeles residents already slog through a daily hailstorm of advertising -- pop-ups, pop- unders, telemarketing, billboards, spam, TV commercials, product placements, junk mail, junk faxes and all the rest. And once you put the city on the auction block, where will it end? When a 100-foot Coke bottle is dangled over City Hall? When kids pledge allegiance to a Nike banner along with the American flag? Some things just shouldn't be for sale. The city of Los Angeles is one of them.