The city of Springfield, Fla., will soon be getting 15 new squad cars equipped with the latest in computer databases, satellite tracking, and back-seat jail bars. The cost of each vehicle is only $1 ... with a catch.
These aren't traditional "black and white" police cars. Instead, each cruiser will be emblazoned with advertisements that could vary from local services ("Minnie's Beauty Salon" and "Bert's Radiators") to, say, national doughnut or burger chains. Dozens of cash-strapped towns are also considering the idea, an offer made by a marketing company.
While law-enforcement experts see a whole new source of revenue to replace aging, outdated fleets, critics wonder whether this could mean we'll be seeing live TV broadcasts of car chases in which the pursuers sport ads for happy meals next to each siren.
In additions to questions of conflict of interest, some wonder whether this is one step too far in the commercialization of America.
"American society has really gone beyond the pale in turning every part of the environment into ad space," says Professor Michael Maynard, who teaches journalism, advertising, and PR at Temple University. "There should be some things that are off limits."
But proponents counter that the ads will be tasteful (none for alcohol, tobacco, firearms, or gambling). City buses and dog-catcher trucks already carry such advertisements, and this is merely the next logical step, they say.
Government Acquisitions LLC, the firm in Charlotte, N.C., that is pushing the idea, is already getting lots of takers.
Since May, 12 police departments in locations as diverse as Ozark, Ala., and Caddo Valley, Ariz. have signed up for the offer. The company says it has been inundated with enquiries from police. "Everybody wins. Cities get the extra protection they need, and businesses get a way to contribute to the local police," says Ken Allison, managing partner of the company.
But at least one observer is worried about the possible implications of such a deal. "I see a problem with conflict of interest right out of the gate," says Prof. Gary Kritz, who teaches advertising and marketing at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. "If local police forces have advertisements for local businesses, might the police be tempted to look the other way if one of those businesses commit crimes against society? The ads could in effect be viewed as bribing a public officer, which in itself is a crime."
One of the first towns to actually approve the idea is Springfield, Fla., population 9,000. City commissioners recently glanced at their aging fleet of squad cars, and their tax-income projections for the next few years, and decided to look into the idea to help them police their streets. "We don't have property tax, we don't have sales tax, and we are very limited on state revenue sharing," says police chief Sam Slay. "I'll be honest and say I didn't like the idea at first, but from a practical standpoint this is something we just cannot ignore."
Gary Gernandt, a city councilman in Omaha, Neb., initially didn't like the idea either, but says the savings for the city could top $1 million. "We think the idea is worth exploring. Our current graffiti van was purchased by private money, and corporations have logos all over it. Our stadium has ads on the fences and corridors as does our civic auditorium. As long as it's done tastefully, advertising on police cars is no different."
But police cars are different, say some legal scholars. There is a danger of the appearance of impropriety in the eyes of the public. And there are practical issues of proper identification of the cars.
"Ads would distract from the civic symbols, emergency phone numbers, squad-car numbers," says Robert Pugsley, a law professor at Southwestern University School of Law in Los Angeles. "A police car should not look like a NASCAR. It could lead to legal difficulties."
Still others wonder whether the ads will stop at police cars. They muse that logos might end up on the lapels or trousers of cop uniforms in the same way that a woman recently began selling ad space on her bowling skirt, and a bald head offered his head to the highest advertising bidder on eBay. And they're worried about other recent agreements between private businesses and public entities. The San Diego City Council, for example, is currently weighing a proposal for the city to partner with GM. In exchange for allowing advertising on its beachfront lifeguard towers, the automobile company is offering to give the city 35 vehicles. And the town of St. Peters, Mo., just announced that it is going to experiment with leasing ads on the sides of its trash-collection trucks.
"I really feel we've finally gone completely over the edge of appropriateness and better judgment into a fuzziness between commercial and public discourse that is really dangerous," says Kalle Lasn, author of several books on the rise of advertising and publisher of Adbusters Magazine. "We've already tracked the rise of ads into every area of life from urinals to golf holes. I think this will diminish respect for the whole institution of police," Mr. Lasn says.