Branding New York Out of Crisis

Julia Dunn Aug 20, 2009

Tourists who flock to Chinatown and other sections of the city to buy “I Love New York” T-shirts are participating in more than just shopping. According to Miriam Greenberg, author of Branding New York: How a City in Crisis Was Sold to the World, they’re also buying a piece of history.

The logo is the product of a 1977 marketing campaign to propel New York City out of a financial and image crisis, which was riddled with perceptions of the city as unsafe, dirty and unfriendly.

Since then, billions of T-shirts, buttons and other memorabilia have been sold, creating an internationally recognizable logo.

These branding efforts were largely a result of city elites’ efforts to reinvigorate a failing tourism industry and transform the way visitors viewed the city, according to Greenberg.

Greenberg, an assistant professor of sociology at The University of California at Santa Cruz, discussed her book and the history of branding in New York City at Bluestockings Bookstore August 3. More than 30 people attended the event.

“Branding, to me, is an intense dictation of that fetishizing of that commodity and is a dangerous thing,” Greenberg said.

Prior to the 1970s, New York City did little to alter its public image. But with the 1970s came one of the city’s grittiest periods—complete with labor strikes, civil unrest, soaring crime rates and citywide blackouts.

One example of the city’s image problem was the 1976 “Fear City” campaign, organized by members of police and firefighter unions that were laid off by the city. Participants produced leaflets that urged visitors to steer clear of New York City by warning tourists to stay off city streets after dark and refrain from using the subway altogether.

In 1977, the year of the “Summer of Sam” serial murders, the New York State Department of Commerce debuted its first coherent ad campaign—“I Love New York”—which was quickly popularized by Milton Glaser’s iconic illustration.

According to Greenberg, this new era of marketing New York gave way to the branding of the city.

“I define branding as a much more coordinated consistent and capital intensive form of marketing,” said Greenberg. “As well as one that is always linked with restructuring.”

One of the most powerful tools of marketing is to draw on people’s emotions and connect consumers to products through fetishes and false desires such as the selling of New York City, Greenberg said.

While Greenberg mostly focused on the “I Love New York” campaign, she also discussed other branding efforts, including “Just Ask The Locals”—which has been criticized for featuring non-native New Yorkers instead of “real” New Yorkers—and, most recently, the “Rainbow Pilgrimage.”

The Pilgrimage campaign was launched this past June to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riot. However, according to Greenberg, the campaign focused more on shopping than it did on the actual LGBT rights movement.

“They changed Stonewall Riot to Stonewall Uprising in the campaign, they don’t want to talk about the gay liberation front, they don’t want to talk about drag queens and transgendered people who were leading the riots and it becomes a much more sanitized version of what stonewall was about,” Greenberg said.

On the same level, the city’s obsession with image control can be seen in any campaign that has “sanitized” New York’s classic grit. The popular TV series “Sex and The City” was discussed during the Q&A session following Greenberg’s talk as an example of an unrealistic portrayal of the city, especially when compared to locals who are struggling against disappearing neighborhoods and gentrification.

Though the “I Love New York” campaign is more than thirty years old, Greenberg believes that the campaign is still relevant to the New Yorkers of today, especially during a time when the city is branding itself more than ever.

As Greenberg writes in the introduction of her book: “It is crucial to understand this period in New York City’s history as we choose our path today.”

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