Thursday, September 20, 2012

Embroiled In Embarrassment of Hosting Controversial Advertisement MTA Considers Banning “Issue Advertising”: What About Barclays LIBOR Scandal?

There is of course the very basic underlying question of how civically healthy it is for the MTA to permit the bedecking of virtually every surface, nook and cranny under its control with adverting.   The extent of the prevailing corporatist pander-moanium communicates a lack of self-respect on the MTA’s part and a lack of respect for governmentally controlled assets that have been almost entirely paid for by the public’s taxes and user fees.  I’ve semi-joked once before that, despite all the corporate branding of the public assets that’s allowed, the public is paying 99 and 44/100% of the costs of these assets without the assistance of such corporate branding.  That 99.44% figure is actually right on the money: When it comes to the MTA the 99.04% of its budget revenues comes from sources other than advertising: $12.38 billion out of $12.5 billion.  Advertising pulls in only the remaining $120 million (not billion). . . .  (See: Monday, September 17, 2012, NY Times Runs 3rd Article Mentioning That, Given Scandal, Promotionally Naming Subway Stations & Arena “Barclays” Is Problematic.)

You would hardly guess that ads pull so little financial weight when surveying the clamorous melee of advertising cluttering the MTA environment.

Now it turns out that playing prostrate host to advertising can be a headache that’s more than it's worth to the MTA in multiple ways: After objecting and losing in court the MTA has been ordered, on freedom of speech grounds, to run extremely controversial advertisements that, paraphrasing Ayn Rand (of all the gosh-darn times to do so!), equate Arab nations with savages and (of all the gash-darn times to do so!) instructs New York subway riders to “Support Israel. Defeat Jihad.”

(See: Court Rules That NY MTA Must Run Anti-Jihad Ad, By Jim O'Grady, 09/19/2012, WNYC News Blog, Subways to Display Controversial 'Jihad' Ad, Wednesday, September 19, 2012, by The Associated Press, New York City’s Metropolitan Transit Authority to Run an Anti-Islam Ad Campaign it Finds ‘Demeaning’, by Adeline Sire, September, 19, 2012.)

Faced with the dilemma of being between this hard-to-stomach place and the court ruling the MTA accedes it must follow, the MTA is now considering having its board adopt a total ban on future issue advertisingInteresting!  What does that mean for the MTA’s advertising promoting the Barclays Bank with the “Barclays” Center and the “Barclays” subway stations?  Will the MTA now adopt a policy that would have prohibited its current promotion of the LIBOR scandalous British bank?  It will at least have to mull over whether whatever policy it adopts should naturally entail such implications.

When it comes to the top issues now in the news, the LIBOR interest rate-fixing scandal (for which key participant Barclays Bank's name has become a synonym) and the news of the opening of the Ratner/Prokhorov basketball arena prominently promoting the Barclays Bank name with taxpayer dollars rank pretty high.  At this exact moment those combined issues may not be getting quite as much ink as the concocted turmoil over the infamous designed-to-provoke and insult-to-Mohamed movie trailer (with which the “support Israel” ad has some common characteristics) but the Barclays issues are a very strong runner-up in terms of the attention they are getting.  (They at least got front page coverage on a New York Times Magazine supplement.)

More important, the Barclays issues directly concern the MTA itself.  The MTA has been intimately involved in producing the “Barclays” Center arena.  The MTA is part of the reason the arena is a huge net loss to taxpayers.  The MTA tossed in additional financial benefit to the developer by giving it the ability to name key subway hub stations “Barclays” virtually for free.  Last but not least, the MTA is now, itself, looking at suing Barclays Bank for losses it suffred in connection with the LIBOR rate-fixing.

All of this presents some pretty big issues front and center.  If the MTA is going to start exercising control over advertising that concerns controversial issues the Barclays/MTA issues above are certainly big enough to deserve such attention.  In a better world oughtn’t the MTA be reserving to itself the ability to terminate promotions that provocatively and questionably favor one side of high-profile and controversial issues?  That should, by rights, include termination of favorable promotion for a bank like Barclays at a time like this.

The pro-Israel, anti-Arab ads the MTA will have to allow in subway stations (they will go into ten of its stations) were created by the Pamela Geller’s American Freedom Defense Initiative (which fought against Islamic Community Center near Ground Zero).  It's an organization that intentionally seeks to take controversial sides.   The same ads ran in the San Francisco’s transportation system and the transit authority there accompanied them with huge disclaimers appearing alongside stating that the transit authority disavowed the message promoted in the advertisements the system was hosting.           

Now wouldn’t it be interesting if New York’s MTA were to decide to utilize disclaimers in connection with the opening of the “Barclays” Center to say that despite its vast subsidies to the Atlantic Yards mega-monopoly and its “Barclays” Center arena, and despite renaming subways hubs by the name of “Barclays” at virtually no charge to either the developer or the bank, that the MTA disavows and does not endorse Barclays Bank or the bank’s banking improprieties.  To be effective the disavowals would have to be as large as the “Barclays” logos on the arena's sides and roof, and would have to be as ubiquitously placed as the “Barclays” name now appearing on innumerable subway pillars.

For now we’ll probably have to settle for the balance created by guerrilla political street artists who are stealthily modifying the MTA’s Barclays branded subway pillars to say things like: “Barclays always has the best fixed rates” and other interesting variations of criticism the bank probably deserves. The MTA is reportedly not, like the San Francisco TA,  going to adopt a strategy of disclaiming counter-advertising with respect to the Middle East conflict ads.

The MTA has, however, issued a statement that includes in it this disavowal of the Middle East ad:

MTA does not decide whether to allow a proposed advertisement based upon its viewpoint and the MTA does not endorse the viewpoint in this or any other paid advertisement. MTA is currently reviewing its policy of accepting non-commercial viewpoint advertisements.
There’s been no comparable MTA disavowal the Barclays promotion yet.

The MTA may attempt to define its controversial promotion of Barclays Bank as something other than issue advertising by defining issue ads as synonymous with “non-commercial ads,” a term its spokespersons have begun using in discussing these matters.  Doing so would give commercialism free reign in the MTA environment while only restricting others.  So, for instance, a corporatist promotion of Barclays bank would be protected as a “commercial ad” while an ad promoting the thought that Barclays’ rate-fixing conduct was improper would be banned under the MTA's new policy as a “non-commercial ad.”

Should such a distinction be permitted: “Barclays Bank Bad” = prohibited “non-commercial ad” speech while “Barclays Bank Good” = permitted “commercial speech”?

This issue is supposed to be considered by the MTA at its board meeting next week where the public will be permitted to address the MTA Directors on the subject:
Thursday, September 27th
Board Mtg. – 9:30 a.m.
MTA Headquarters
347 Madison Avenue, 5th Floor Board Room
New York, NY 10017

Public Speaking Procedures
•    Registration opens 15 minutes before scheduled start of committee meetings and 30 minutes before the start of each board meeting.
•    Registration must be done in person.
•    Statements must be about agenda items only.
•    Two minute speaking limit.
•    Speaking time may not be transferred.

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