From the trenches: A survivor's tale of the ideology biz

by Richard Rosenthal

(Originally posted to ebikes, the New York cyclists' mailing list)

May 1, 1998

Welcome to Bike Month in New York City.

The DoT Urban Mobility Unit inveigled me into bidding on the project predicated on its stated purpose: to promote cycling in New York City. My work and the entire campaign (I believe as well as the entire salaries of the bike people at the NYC DoT) was, as I understood from someone at the DoT, being paid for entirely from ISTEA funds that were specifically set aside to promote cycling. I was told not one cent was coming from the city or state.

I got the contract. The thrust of the ads, so I felt, was to be aimed at the greatest threat to responsible and considerate cyclists: drivers. The ads I had in mind primarily sought to promote their awareness of, and consideration for responsible and considerate cyclists. And where do you suppose was the only place I was told by the DoT person in charge of media for the campaign the ads would run? On subways! Do you believe it? Yeah, you sure do see a lot of city drivers driving down in the subways....

I created some work that praised bikes for being non-polluting, efficient, convenient, quiet, and non-traffic jamming...then was told by the DoT's Urban Mobility Unit I could not even imply, much less say cars pollute, are noisy, and cause traffic jams. I wasn't even able to imply it by showing a print cartoon of cars stacked literally on top of one another, horns blaring, exhaust belching. Nor was I able to even imply it by saying bikes are quiet, clean, and non-traffic-jamming as that implied cars were not.

I was told by the DoT's Urban Mobility Unit they would not accept an ad in which I would find an actual truck driver, a cab driver, and a chauffeur who would say, "I drive here for a living but I bike here for convenience and pleasure" because that implied it wasn't a pleasure or convenient to drive.

Instead, this supposedly pro-bike campaign to promote cycling was reduced to a mere bromide that might just as well have had Rodney "Can't We All Just Get Along" King as its copywriter. Around a circle are the words "Drivers- Cyclists-Pedestrians-Together." And, insofar as I know, that's the sum total of the argument made for cars (and pedestrians) to be careful and mindful and respectful of cyclists. (I was urged to create ads that lectured cyclists to be careful of drivers and pedestrians.)

I sought to have a handrawn, graffiti-appearing Smiley in the middle of the circle with bicycle wheels for eyes. I was told that was inappropriate. ...And now I hear a cartoon character named Doug, so someone who reported seeing the ad in a bus shelter thought, is featured in this campaign. (I suspect it may be a character named "Ziggy" as the head of the DoT's Urban Mobility Unit who decreed a Smiley was inappropriate, from the outset stumped for my using the Ziggy character because he had special access to it from its licensor. Suffice it to say, none of the work I showed made use of this character and I spoke against its use.)

Once I was obliged to embrace Drivers-Pedestrians-Cyclists-Together in this supposedly exclusively pro-bike campaign, I put forward the line: "Drive, ride, and walk the way your Mother would want you to." This was rejected as it was said by someone at the DoT not all Mothers are caring and loving; besides, what race would we make the mother if we showed her?

When I then suggested the line, "Drive, ride, and walk the way your doctor, lawyer, minister, and Mother would want you to," along with a picture depicting them, there ensued a discussion as to what race, ethnic group, and gender to make each of them. I suggested we make the Mother a female. My remark was not met too kindly. In any event, this was rejected because, again, there could be no agreement on what race, ethnic group, and gender to make each person and the DoT didn't want to offend anyone.

To continue in this small-c Catholic vein, exception was taken to the word "minister" because it didn't encompass Jews and we couldn't exclude Jews. I said a rabbi is a minister. That wasn't good enough. "Reverend" was out even though I said rabbis are referred to as reverends. "Preacher" wouldn't do. "Priest" excluded Protestants. Finally, the woman who decreed we could not use mothers because not all mothers are caring, decreed, "Let's make it "...minister or rabbi"? Yeah, that was it. What a sharp line. Just hear the euphony yourself: "Drive, ride, and walk the way your doctor, lawyer, and minister or rabbi would want you to." Has a ring to it, doesn't it?

In dance this is referred to as the PC Gavotte. It ends with me throwing up.

But here is by far the most outrageous part of this whole experience which was the single worst experience of all my years in advertising: One of the ads the DoT accepted had the headline: "We Bike Here." It would be surrounded by the names of hundreds and hundreds of people along with their professions of people who do bike here. My intent was too soften the perception that only wild, inconsiderate, irresponsible people ride bikes here. I was prepared to put forward the names of doctors, lawyers, professors, engineers, government employees, housewives, househusbands, and, my favorites--an MTA bus mechanic and a subway maintenance person.

Among the names I showed in my dummy copy was that of four people who do ride here: former Manhattan borough president and mayoral candidate, Ruth Messinger; Bronx borough president, Fernando Ferrar; John Kennedy, Jr.; and Robin Williams. Here is the ugly, astonishing, and altogether upsetting part: I was told the list would have to be vetted at City Hall for political approval and I could not include any names on it that would displease them; specifically I could not include the names of anyone who was identifiably a Democrat. I was asked could I vouch that Robin Williams had not donated to the Democrats? And I was told I could not mention Messinger, Ferrar, and Kennedy as they are identifiably Democrats.

I wouldn't lend myself to such partisanship under the supposed color of promoting cycling--paid for by federal funds, no less.

As I had been told my contract with the city was strictly for the creative work and separate contracts would have to be let to produce the ads (hire photographers, illustrators, etc.), and as amassing names and obtaining releases from everyone mentioned in the ad was a production problem, not a creative matter, I don't know whether or not the ad moved forward. I suspect it may not have as it would have taken a fair amount of work and my sense of the people at the DoT was that none of them was up to doing it. Maybe the DoT did contract with someone to produce such an ad and poster. Maybe you will see it. If so, it won't have my name on it.

All of you here who responded to my call for people to be mentioned in such an ad now know why I didn't follow up with you after my initial contact. When the partisan color of this was revealed to me, I didn't want to inquire into whether you were politically active, and, as I'm sure you understand, I didn't want to lend myself to such a partisan undertaking under the color of merely creating pro-bike riding advertising. But let me again thank all of you who did originally e- me to express your willingness to be in that ad/poster.

When I argued against the bastardization of this entire campaign and the stealth manner of the DoT people responsible for it, I was railed at for being unprofessional. And I was railed at for refusing to compromise. But compromise isn't what the DoT meant or wanted. Compromise, of course, means both sides yield. What they wanted was for me to capitulate, not compromise, at every turn. What the DoT Urban Mobility Unit demanded was that I fold completely before their whims: in ideas, theme, words, pictures, colors, layout, everything.

Too bad. They might have gotten a really first-rate ad campaign out of this. But, then, it would have done something not intended: it would have promoted bicycling in New York City and consideration for safe and responsible cyclists.