- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 29, 2004

Earlier this month, Major League Baseball planned to put Spiderman logos on fields across the county, covering bases in ads as part of a marketing plan. But baseball fans opposed the plan, wanting to protect something special about the game, something that can’t be bought or sold.

Baseball, after all, is America’s pastime. Fans view the playing field as something to be held in public trust, to be passed on to future generations unspoiled, so that their children can enjoy the same game they do. After hearing the public outcry, Major League Baseball recognized this and scaled back its marketing effort, eliminating plans to put ads on the bases. So baseball games went on this past month largely as they have for the past century.

In stark contrast to baseball, the Metro Board decided this month to go forward with an advertising plan that would destroy the public trust they have been given and leave Metro worse off for the next generation. Facing budget shortfalls, Metro has approved placing TV screens on trains to broadcast an endless loop of commercials.

Metro’s plan would clutter up what is now an impressive public space and force people to receive a message they don’t want to see. A person’s choice of what they do with their mind will be limited, no matter how innocuous the message of the advertising is. Students finishing their algebra and workers reading the newspaper will be distracted by the blasting videos. A diligent person may be able to avoid the visual noise some of the time, but the additive effect, day after day, year after year, will take its toll.

The untold secret of selling public space is that it often doesn’t generate the revenue its proponents expect. According to NPR’s “Morning Edition,” in two-and-a-half years the city of Orlando has yet to make money from placing televisions in its buses. ZapMe! — a company that monitored student Web browsing and targeted ads to young computer users — went bankrupt. The exclusive soda deals signed by many schools have failed to bring in as much money as expected.

We are selling out our public values — and cheap. Metro predicts that their advertising plan will generate $700,000 this year and could bring in more in the future. While this is a substantial sum of money, compared to Metro’s annual budget of nearly $1 billion, it is a relatively small amount for Metro to sacrifice the trust it has been given by the public.

Metro could have learned this financial lesson if it looked at the District’s history. In 1948, D.C. buses and streetcars began broadcasting commercial radio, forcing passengers to listen to ads every five minutes — a relatively tame amount compared to Metro’s current proposals. Many D.C. riders were outraged. The Washington Post editorialized against the radio plan. Herblock used his cartooning skill to oppose the ads. Then, in 1953, five years after the advertising began, it was pulled off the air because it wasn’t making enough money. Newspapers wrote that “profits from operation of the broadcast had not been up to expectation.”

Perhaps baseball was aware that this type of advertising often fails to meet financial expectations.

What is especially disturbing about the contrast between Metro’s decision and baseball’s is that Major League Baseball is a business, albeit one with a significant attachment to the public and taxpayers. Metro is a public agency, constituted solely to serve the public. Metro should live up to that billing and scrap its invasive advertising plan.

David Madland is a Ph.D. student studying government at Georgetown University.

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