It’s become a common trope of the dystopian sci-fi movie: the dark, futuristic metropolis where every visible space in the cityscape is plastered with the logos of corporate overlords.
The 2006 comedy Idiocracy played such rampant commercialization for laughs, depicting a dumbed-down population where even the citizens are named after corporate products. David Foster Wallace’s grimly comic 1996 novel Infinite Jest painted a hyper-commercialized future when years are named for corporate sponsors.
In January, the Mesa Fire and Medical Department, in an effort to offset approximately $1.4 million in budget cuts, began welcoming private businesses to sponsor health and safety messages on its firetrucks, inching us one step closer to such a future – or so it might seem, judging from the rash of calls the city received after the plan was announced in November.
“We did hear from a few people who were afraid they were going to start seeing Mesa fire-
trucks driving around the city with Under Armour ads on the sides, or ads for dispensaries,” says John Pombier, Mesa’s assistant city manager. “That’s not likely to happen.”
Actually, what the department will allow on the trucks is tame. For a $15,000 annual “sponsorship fee,” companies can have their logos appear below a pre-determined safety message on two 47-inch by 30-inch vinyl decals affixed to the lower back corner of each side of the truck. Sponsors receive 5,000 trading cards – featuring photos of the sponsored truck along with the company’s logo – and a 30-second video. The fire department hopes sponsors will pass out the cards at events and share the videos online.
The promotion is the brainchild of Mesa Fire deputy chief Forrest Smith, a firefighter with a background in marketing. Smith submitted the proposal last summer after the Mesa City Council passed a budget that constricted funding to its police and fire departments, which account for 62 percent of the city’s annual operating funds. So far, Smith says, he hasn’t heard of another Valley municipality attempting a similar method, although cities like Baltimore and Minneapolis have been experimenting with it, and the Phoenix Fire Department has run ads on its trucks in the past for John C. Lincoln and St. Joseph’s hospitals.
“The companies that we’ll be working with will have to pretty much match the values of the community,” Smith says. “If a company is unable to market itself to anybody under the age of 16, that tells us it’s not a company that we can partner with.” The department is looking for sponsors already “in line” with the agency’s messaging, like smoke alarm makers or HVAC repair companies. “We recently partnered with Arizona Chimney and Air Ducts,” he says. “We have a good number of house fires throughout the year resulting from things like clogged dryer vents, so they’re a good fit.”
Good fit or not, some citizens’ advocacy groups preach for a separation between public safety resources and corporate interests. Consumers can form politically charged relationships with products and services, which can strain community relations.
For example, in 2009, KFC donated $3,000 to the city of Louisville, Kentucky, where the fried chicken chain is headquartered, to fill the city’s potholes, branding each patched spot with an emblem stenciled in chalk reading “Re-Freshed by KFC.” People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA) doubled the offer to stencil its own emblem over Louisville’s potholes – one depicting Colonel Sanders with devil horns beside the message “KFC Tortures Animals.”
“When a public resource representing the interests of taxpayers partners up with a corporation today, it’s taking a huge risk,” says Kristen Strader, campaign coordinator for Commercial Alert, a project of the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit ethics group Public Citizen. “If a corporation that they have endorsed… ends up engaged in some type of wrongdoing – if a CEO gets charged with sexual assault or if the company gets called out in social media for a tone-deaf ad campaign – that can create a bad association.”
Strader says people aren’t going to stop calling 911 because they don’t want trucks with ads. But if response times are shorter in neighborhoods built by a developer whose logo appears on the trucks, or fires are extinguished faster in buildings with the brand of smoke detector on a decal, the department could come under fire.
“I get that they’re saying the companies they’re partnering with have to be in line with their values,” she says. “It really is a slippery slope, once the money starts coming in.”
That may take a while. Smith says the goal is to put signage on all of the trucks in the fleet assigned to fire stations, which, if fully sponsored, could generate approximately $250,000 annually – still short of the $1.4 million cuts. If the department makes a profit beyond budget needs (City of Mesa Office of Management and Budget assures transparency), Smith would like the funds to cover “a multitude of areas in need,” including training, equipment, social-service programs and response units.
“We are in talks with five different companies seriously considering or in the development stages of doing a sponsorship,” Smith says. “It’s too early to tell, but we are optimistic.”