That's the multimillion-dollar question being asked after the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, recently announced the hiring of the city's first ever chief marketing officer. The post was created after a deputy mayor involved in pitching New York as the potential site of the 2012 Summer Olympics mulled over ways for the city to raise funds by capitalising on control of the trademarks and intellectual property rights to the New York City name. The goal: sell New York as if it were a brand.
Hey, you're probably saying, I thought New York already was a brand. (If you're a New Yorker, you're probably using a word a tad stronger than "Hey.") The New York fire and police departments licence their logos and names, which gained added goodwill appeal after 11 September. Less officially, there are examples such as DKNY apparel, for Donna Karan New York; New York Harbor Ale; New York and The New Yorker magazines; innumerable New York-style pizzas and pizzerias, not to mention bagels and bagel bakeries; the Chrysler New Yorker car line, and New York Cut cigarettes, recently introduced by the Fifth Avenue tobacconist Nat Sherman.
Of course, if you want to stretch a point, there also are Fifth Avenue candy bars, the Saks Fifth Avenue department store chain, the Buick Park Avenue car line ... the list extends longer than a queue for tickets to a Super Bowl matching the New York Giants against the New York Jets (who both play in New Jersey, but that's the subject of another rant, er, column).
The new New York City chief marketing officer - Joseph Perello, a former vice-president of development for the New York Yankees baseball team - will lead the search for marketers who would pay big bucks to become civic-minded corporate sponsors of the city. Leveraging the New York brand of urban grit, glamour and guts, the theories go, could include everything from adding an advertiser's name to a landmark such as Central Park to erecting "Brought to you by" signs in parks and schoolyards to auctioning off rights for products to be designated as the "official" soap or soup or soft drink of New York.
"I don't think you will see a big Coca-Cola or Pepsi-Cola sign across the front of City Hall," Bloomberg joshed at a news conference called to introduce Perello. But it appears there will be significant exploitation of the New York City brand under Bloomberg, whose predecessors including Rudy Giuliani had steadfastly resisted such ploys.
What has changed? The worsening of the fiscal crisis, most notably, as the city confronts a budget gap of $3 billion to $4 billion. That may make the concept of selling out less painful, if no less palatable. Then, too, there's Bloomberg's status as a billionaire who spent a record $70 million of his own money to get elected mayor. This is a man who knows what money can buy.
Also, perhaps New York's status as the home of Madison Avenue makes its citizens somewhat more willing to endure japes such as those in the Daily News about Gillette's Right Guard becoming "the official deodorant of the New York City subway system".
Sometimes, higher taxes stink even more than commercialising the public domain.