Advertising In Parks: The Public Interest and the Arrogance of Power

Left, Judith Kieffer, executive director of the L.A. Parks Foundation; right, Barry Sanders, president of the Recreation and Parks Commission

Given the opportunity of a TV interview to discuss the propriety of a plan to sell space in L.A. city parks for commercial ads, Barry Sanders, president of the Recreation and Parks Commission, adopted the tone of an authoritarian parent addressing slightly dimwitted children and proceeded to explain why critics—including a city council member and the city attorney’s office– misunderstood almost everything about the plan that first surfaced last fall when the commission voted to allow Warner Bros. to put images from its upcoming “Yogi Bear” movie in three of the city’s most popular parks.

The commission rescinded that action after Councilman Paul Koretz invoked a seldom-used city charter provision that allows the city council to veto actions of charter commissions.  Despite this about-face, Sanders told a reporter for KCET’s “SoCal Connected series” last week that even though the images Warner Bros. was going to place on fences, light standards, building walls and picnic tables throughout the parks were identical to images used in the movie’s marketing campaign, they weren’t advertising anything and therefore the objections raised by Koretz and community members were misplaced.

Sanders, a retired partner at Latham & Watkins, one of L.A.’s largest and most politically influential law firms, also dismissed the opinion of the city attorney’s office that the signs would violate the city’s ban on new off-site advertising.  Because the Yogi Bear images were simply recognizing a corporate gift to city parks—a gift netting the city the grand sum of $46,636—Sanders argued that they fell into the category of “government speech” and therefore were exempt from regulations governing commercial signage.   The interviewer, Brian Rooney, pointed out that the Yogi Bear signs were to be displayed for four weeks leading up to the movie’s opening, and that Warner Bros.  apparently lost interest in making this “gift” to the parks after the movie’s holiday run in local theaters.  Despite those facts, Sanders didn’t waver in his expressed conviction that the park images had absolutely nothing to do with luring parents and children to those theaters.

This alternate view of what many might consider common-sense reality extends far beyond the stillborn Yogi Bear scheme.  The non-profit L.A. Parks Foundation is now marketing “sponsorship opportunities” in a wide range of city parks, day care centers, skate parks, swimming pools, dog parks, basketball and tennis courts, and other recreational facilities.  Consisting of wall and fence signs, banners, trash can wraps, and even swimming pool bottoms, the spaces offered to corporate advertisers comprise a total square footage equivalent to hundreds of full-sized billboards.

To Sanders, who chairs the foundation’s board in addition to heading the recreation and parks commission, none of this is advertising, even though simulations in marketing brochures show large graphical images of such logos as Coca-Cola, 7-Up and Levi’s superimposed on fences, steps, and the sides of tree planters.  It’s  impossible to imagine that Sanders doesn’t understand the concept of branding, i.e.,  burning the impression of products into people’s minds for the purpose of increasing sales of that product.  If a large “Coca-Cola” sign hanging on a playground fence is not “branding” and thus advertising, then what is?

The disingenuous nature of Sanders’s assertions was thoroughly exposed by the SoCal Connected piece entitled “Parks for Sale?”  Interviewer Rooney quoted from sections of the foundation’s marketing materials that offer demographic information about different parks—how many children use the park, for example–and a “rate card” with amounts to be charged for various signs, banners, and wraps.  A list of benefits for park sponsors includes “Opportunities to display, distribute, and introduce your product or services.”  Nothing mentioned about gifts or donations.  Once more, if all this isn’t advertising, then what in the world is it?

The argument, of course, is that maintaining parks and recreation facilities in the face of diminishing public resources requires corporate support, and getting significant support without going beyond recognition of donors by placing a tasteful plaque with a logo on a bench is very hard if not impossible.  That’s why a company willing to donate $12,500 will get to put a dozen large signs around the perimeter of the Griffith Park child care center playground, or for $17,500, cover the bottom of the park’s pool with a corporate logo and wrap its fence, trash cans, and benches with the same.

The marketing materials posted on the foundation’s website, with detailed, computer-generated simulations of actual parks and recreation facilities, obviously took some time and expense to create.  What’s missing in this plan put together by a foundation unaccountable to elected officials like Paul Koretz and his constituents is even the slightest hint that they were asked the simple question of whether or not they wanted these advertising signs in their neighborhood parks.

Last October, after the commission rescinded its Yogi Bear decision, the executive director of the parks foundation, Judith Kieffer, met with the community advisory board for Holmby Park in Westwood, one of the three parks that were slated to get the cartoon images.  She assured the volunteer board members that in the future these kind of decisions would be presented to the board before being discussed by the recreation and parks commission, but three months later a detailed plan to sell space in the park is being presented to potential advertisers, and until last week when SoCal Connected aired its “Parks For Sale?” episode those board members had never heard of it.

The neighborhood council whose boundaries encompass Holmby Park had no inkling of the advertising plan, either.  Ditto for the neighborhood councils in the areas of the other two parks, Pan Pacific Park in Hollywood and Beilensen Park in Encino.  Why? After all,  what is a more quintessential neighborhood resource than a park or swimming pool or tennis court, and what is more in keeping with the spirit of the neighborhood council system than giving local communities a voice in decisions about how those parks and other facilities are operated?

This top-down, paternalistic approach to implementing important public policy is perhaps unsurprising, given that Sanders spent 35 years as a corporate attorney for a law firm that represents clients like AEG and NBC Universal, companies that spend hundreds of thousands of dollars every year on lobbying to impose their will on elected officials and appointed boards and commissions.  Kieffer’s husband is a partner with another high-powered law firm; Manatt, Phelps & Phillips, and Cindy Starrett, a parks foundation board member and legal counsel, is a current Latham & Watkins partner and a registered lobbyist frequently seen in City Hall.

According to e-mails obtained by KCET in advance of the SoCal Connected episode, Starrett openly advocated for approval of the Yogi Bear plan, even though the City Attorney’s office had communicated a warning  both prior to and during the Oct. 6 meeting at which the Recreation and Parks Commission okayed the plan.  This warning, delivered both in writing and in person by the deputy city attorney at the meeting, clearly stated that putting the signs in the parks would violate city ordinance.

During that meeting, Sanders complained that the City Attorney’s office should stop raising issues of legality and find a way to help the commission in its quest to allow Warner Bros. to get the Yogi Bear images into the parks.  When Deputy City Attorney Arletta Brimsey persisted in saying her office considered the signs a violation of city ordinance, an extended discussion ensued in which other commissioners, including Jill Werner, who is also a member of the parks foundation board, weighed in with their opinions that the Yogi Bear images had absolutely nothing to do with the upcoming movie and would simply be a wonderful enhancement for children using the parks.

Just before the holidays, the City Attorney’s office told the parks commission that if it wanted to go beyond placement of small signs thanking corporate sponsors for their donations they would need to seek city council approval of an ordinance exempting parks and recreation facilities from the city’s ban on off-site signs.  Whether or not the commission will do that, or rely on opinions by private attorneys from Latham & Watkins or other downtown law firms remains to be seen.

In the meantime, advertisers—or sponsors, in the parks foundation parlance—are being solicited to buy space in a total of 79 parks, swimming pools, child care centers, and other city recreation facilities.  It’s clear that the City Attorney’s opinion of this is unwelcome, and that community opinion hasn’t been considered at all.  The sincerity of those who believe they’re doing what is best to keep the parks maintained isn’t under question, only the arrogance of their actions.

Dennis Hathaway

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.