Sliding Down That Slippery Slope


We saw this one coming:

NY transit system to ban all political advertising

Just wonder if there’s going to come a time when they need to clarify what they consider “political advertising.” Seems like that slope is still a little slippery.


It feels like just a few weeks ago that those of us railing against selling advertising on public spaces warned that it was a “slippery slope” — that if you allow KFC to advertise on your firetrucks and manhole covers, it won’t be long before the NRA is gloating about cop-killer bullets at your airport and the KKK is demanding its free speech rights on your public buses.

Oh wait, it was just a few weeks ago!

So, here’s what’s happening in New York City:

Last week, the federal courts chalked up another victory for the defense of American freedom—or, rather, for the American Freedom Defense Initiative. Judge John Koeltl of the Southern District of New York ruled that the MTA must display an advertisement known as “the ‘Killing Jews’ advertisement.”

“Killing Jews” (the court’s abbreviation, not mine) is a response to an ad campaign run by the Council on American-Islamic Relations about the concept of “lesser jihad.” As part of its #MyJihad ad campaign to “take back Islam from Muslim and anti-Muslim Extremists Alike,” that group ran a series of ads attempting to promote tolerance and understanding of the concept of “jihad,” or “struggle.” In response, the American Freedom Defense Initiative developed a series of ads with quotes from Islamic extremists, including the one from “Hamas MTV” at issue in the most recent case: “Killing Jews is Worship that draws us close to Allah.” MTA refused to run the ad, and the group sued.

I’m not saying the court was wrong here. I am saying the MTA set itself up for this kind of nonsense when it first started using its public buses as an advertising venue. Just as I’m saying any municipality — including Nashville — is wrong for turning its public spaces, regardless of what they are, into advertising venues.

Here’s the deal. We’ve reached the era of “trollvertisements” — inflammatory hate speech litigated onto the public square by activists. It’s a tactic deployed effectively by Fred Phelps’ “God Hates Fags” group and has been perfected by anti-Islamic extremist Pamela Geller:

In practice, the group—which is run by Pamela Geller, a right-wing activist—is largely devoted to creating incendiary ads for display on public transportation, then litigating when transit authorities shy away from accepting the ads. “Killing Jews” thus joins the pantheon of offensive advertising that the group has placed on public transit around the country, teaching everybody an important lesson about the First Amendment and causing innocent commuters’ eyes to bleed. Beyond their utility at getting travelers from point A to point B, Geller has noted that “[Buses] are a very effective form of advertising,” adding, “I like the bus purely as a marketing vehicle.”

These aren’t advertisements, they’re shoving bigotry and intolerance down the public’s throat under the guise of the First Amendment. Do they have a right to do it? Absolutely. Is it smart for cities to open themselves to this kind of hate speech? No.

Cities have been arguing about this forever. But a contentious KKK rally down Main Street requires having actual people show up to don their white sheet and take their message to the public square. And Fred Phelps’ merry band of hate-mongers, despicable though they are, actually showed up to put a face to their hate.

This is a different thing altogether. This is some faceless person or persons writing a check to plaster their awful message on a public space. And while we know who people like Pamela Geller and Laurie Cardoza-Moore are, it’s easy to see some unknown non-profit doing the same with anonymous donors.

I just think if you’re going to take a dump on the public square we should know who you are. But we can’t see your face when you’re hiding behind an advertisement. And, of course, that’s the point.

Cities opened themselves up to this stuff when they decided that filling a budget hole with ad revenue was more important than opening themselves to the PR disaster that is trollvertising. Good luck presenting yourself as America’s Friendliest City when your city buses portray your Muslim citizens as “Jew Killers.”

And let me say, I’ve devoted more than enough bandwidth to expressing my anger at the dehumanizing experience that is the constant barrage of advertising messages we Americans are confronted with on a daily basis. I’m personally sick of it, have been for a long time (indeed, one of my very first blog posts was on this topic). The surest way to turn me off is to advertise to me (and yes, that goes for the damn megachurch that sent me a direct-mail marketing piece today.)

It would be really refreshing to be able to go somewhere in public, say the town square, and not see an endless stream of messages telling me to think this, buy that, or vote for this person. It’s time our city governments got out of the advertising business for a whole bunch of reasons, not the least one being, you have no control over what you’re selling.


Filed under advertising

6 responses to “Sliding Down That Slippery Slope

  1. There are certain States (Hawaii) and communities (Palm Springs) that ban outdoor advertising. Even the names of buildings and businesses tend to be unobtrusive. It is so calming to walk, ride through them. At first you don’t completely know why they feel so calm – an then you wake up to the lack of visual pollution. And I really dislike the selling of the name of stadiums and other entertainment venues. Thank goodness it’s still the San Francisco Opera House, not the Twitter NoisePlex.

    • Visual pollution = excellent name for it. Ironically, also my punk rock band name! 😉

    • ThresherK

      Also, billboards in Vermont: No.

      They are regulated to little signs, with plain lettering, differing colors for type (dining, lodging, retail, sightseeing), and arrows & distance off the main road.

      Hey, as a flatlander who remembers rooting for the Vermont Expos, I love it.

      I’m already vacationing in Vermont! There’s no need to beat me over the head with billboards a la the penultimate scene of Brazil.

    • Bitter Scribe

      Although it can be kind of funny when that stuff blows up. Remember when Minute Maid Park used to be Enron Field?

  2. Bitter Scribe

    “Hamas MTV”?

    Maybe Hamas VH1 is more mellow.