The Golden Gate Bridge, Brought to You By....

San Francisco has always prided itself on being in the vanguard of what’s hip and new. If so, the rest of the country should watch out. Corporate sponsors may soon have the opportunity to buy sponsorship rights to the Golden Gate Bridge. One of the nation’s great civic icons may soon be festooned with corporate logos. Justin Berton of the San Francisco Chronicle (November 18, 2006) reports that the Golden Gate Bridge district has hired a consultant to find corporate sponsors to help reduce an $87 million budget deficit.

Bridge authorities will pay $90,000 to Sponsorship Strategies of Novato, California, to “assess the market value of the bridge, as well as the transportation district’s bus and ferry systems.” Nobody is talking specifics, but the idea is that logos from “socially conscious” and enviro-friendly corporations would be placed in strategic locations on the bridge and visitors’ center.

Susan Deluxe, a well-known critic of the Golden Gate Bridge, Highway and Transportation District, says the directors are about to “desecrate the span” with advertising. “Go all the way,” she told the Chronicle, “and tear down the toll booths to make way for an Indian casino.”

Affixing corporate logos to civic facilities is actually a growing trend. Squeezed by budget crunches, cities and towns are increasingly pursuing “municipal marketing strategies” that sell off naming rights to parks, buildings and bridges. It’s quite a deal for corporations: Taxpayers shoulder the huge costs of building the civic infrastructure…then a corporate advertiser gets to slap its name on an uncluttered venue for a relative pittance, implicitly taking credit for it. City governments are essentially monetizing our “mind space” by selling access to the proud symbols of our civic life.

I consider the auctioning of “naming rights” to local landmarks, parks and buildings a huge betrayal of citizenship and civic pride. Any healthy city has socially engaged citizen groups working hard to make their hometown a better place to live. When city managers treat civic assets as if they were mere “branding opportunities,” they send an unmistakable signal. What really matters in this city is hard cash from the highest bidder. Taxpayers, citizens — go to the back of the line.

Defenders of “municipal marketing” like to point out that the sponsorship saves taxpayers money. But that presumes that the civic infrastructure ought to be for sale in the first place. It presumes that we want to sell off municipal identity and the symbolic ownership of our civic icons.

The Golden Gate Bridge belongs to all of us — yes, even to visitors who “left their heart in San Francisco” — not to McDonald’s, Apple or Citibank. If corporate advertisers really wish to show their civic commitment, let them donate money or volunteer their time. That’s what public-spirited citizens do. There’s nothing generous or socially conscious or environmentally aware about defacing the Golden Gate Bridge.