- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 22, 2011

CHICAGO — Seven vinyl banners draped this month along one of Chicago’s most iconic bridges, advertisements some have dubbed “a visual crime” and “commercial graffiti,” are reviving a debate about how governments raise money in tough economic times.

In the aftermath of the Great Recession, a public school district in Colorado is selling ads on report cards and Utah has a new law allowing ads on school buses. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s administration, straining to fill a $600 million budget hole, is looking to raise $25 million from ads on city property — including bridges, electrical storage boxes and garbage cans.

The effort kicked off this month with Bank of America ads on the 81-year-old Wabash Avenue Bridge, which crosses the Chicago River and has appeared in movies including “About Last Night” and “The Dark Knight.”

“I think it’s disgusting,” Chicago resident Linda Rosenthal said recently, shaking her head as she surveyed the signs. “The architecture in Chicago is stunning. To see this awful advertisement angers me.”


The white ads with blue lettering and Bank of America’s logo are posted on limestone bridge tender houses, which hold the equipment used to raise the bridge when tall boats pass beneath. Bank of America paid $4,500 to put seven signs on the bridge for about a month, said city spokeswoman Kathleen Strand.

Strand promised the city’s new campaign will have “policies to protect the integrity of Chicago’s facade” and likened the initiative to the Chicago Transit Authority bringing in about $20 million annually from abundant ads on buses and elevated trains that don’t seem to anger anybody.

“The municipal marketing strategy is really about pursuing innovative opportunities to avoid having to cut city services or increase the tax burden on Chicagoans,” Strand said.

Still, some ask where the line will be drawn. Could the city’s historic Water Tower be next? Or Grant Park’s famed Buckingham Fountain?

The city’s two major daily newspapers have faced off with opposing views. Chicago Tribune architecture critic Blair Kamin called the bridge ads “a visual crime” and “a grotesque cheapening of the public realm.” A Chicago Sun-Times editorial said the ads, while unappealing, “beat going bust.”

Bank of America spokeswoman Diane Wagner said the company said yes when Chicago officials asked if the bank wanted to advertise on the bridge because it’s a major employer and philanthropic supporter in the city.

“We agreed to be the first company to display on the bridge because we want to help the city explore new revenue sources and we think this is an innovative way to generate new revenue,” Wagner said.

Chicago advertising professionals doubt it was a smart move for either side.

“I have made my living in advertising, but there has to be better ways to raise money,” said Tim Terchek, executive creative director of the Drucker Group ad firm. What’s more, the bridge ads could backfire if public disgust sticks to the bank, he said.

Leo Burnett Company’s chief strategy officer Stephen Hahn-Griffiths, whose office overlooks the bridge ads, said they are a blight.

“It’s like commercial graffiti,” Hahn-Griffiths said. “It makes no sense from a marketing perspective and I question the intent of doing this because it does not seem like a smart decision.”

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