What’s In a Name?

Date: 9 Apr 1996 | posted in: From the Desk of David Morris, The Public Good | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

What’s In a Name?

by David Morris

April 9, 1996

In full page ads in five major U.S. newspapers, Taco Bell recently made a dramatic announcement.

“In an effort to help the national debt, Taco Bell is pleased to announce that we have agreed to purchase the Liberty Bell…It will now be called the Taco Liberty Bell and will still be accessible to the American public for viewing.”

“While some may find this controversial”, the company continued, “we hope our move will prompt other corporations to take similar action to do their part to reduce the country’s debt.”

The date of the ad should have tipped off the reader. April 1st. But the company’s announcement was so in keeping with the new spirit of America that few could be certain it was a put on. The result? Confusion and massive concern. Elaine Sevy of the National Park Service, which oversees the Liberty Bell exhibit in Philadelphia told reporters, “We have just been getting hammered with phone calls.” Among the agitated callers were staff aides to Senators Bill Bradley and J. James Exon and Representatives John Bryant and Howard McKeon.

Ann Marie Di Serafino of the Independent National Historical Park curtly told reporters, “The Liberty Bell is not for sale.” Not in this case. But how could we have known? Only a few months ago the Republican Party tried to sell off several of our national parks. Is it so outrageous to think they’d be unwilling to rename the symbol of Yellowstone, Exxon’s Old Faithful?

Worried callers to the National Park Service knew that only a few weeks before Taco Bell’s ad appeared, the national parks had been closed because of the budget crisis. As the public sector becomes strapped for funds, everything is put up for sale. The private naming of public symbols is simply the newest fundraising twist.

It’s an idea that whose time has come not only here but in Europe. In early 1995 England offered private sponsors the right to name London’s Underground Stations. One hundred of the 264 stations were deemed to have sufficient commercial name recognition. The Tube’s administrators hope to raise $16 million a year from the plan. For $1.6 million you can permanently rename a station. The new name will be printed on the 5 million system maps distributed each year.

Even the financially strapped Underground has its ethical limits. A spokesman assured Londoners, “we would not want to see McDonald’s Oxford Circus”. Sounds to me like the prostitute who decides not to sleep with especially ugly johns.

What’s good for London is good for Los Angeles. Last year the L.A. City Council decided that for $1 million a donor could name any of its 53 branch libraries. For $2 million a donor can rename any of the five regional libraries. The only library not included in the name sale was L.A.’s Downtown Central Library.

City Councillor Jackie Goldberg opposed the plan. She worried about the possibility that L.A.’s Mark Twain Library could become “the Crest toothpaste” or “Coca-Cola” library. For Councillor Rita Walters, however, Los Angeles can no longer be choosy. Pointing to the public library’s economic problems she insisted, “To deny these resources to the community would, indeed, be unfortunate.” Instead of asking the residents of Los Angeles to pay increased taxes of a dollar or two a year the City Council prefers to have their children grow up associating Coke with learning.

What next? Strapped public schools asking their teachers to sell advertising space on the front of their shirts? Universities offering Microsoft Math 101?

Some time soon I expect destitute cities to sell their name to private corporations. Come to think of it, this is on old idea. Have you ever visited Chocolate City, Hershey, Pennsylvania? But in those days we at least had the decency to call these communities what they were, “company towns”.

After the Taco Bell flap, White House spokesman Michael McCurry weighed in with his own surprise announcement. “Ford Motor Company is joining today in an effort to refurbish the Lincoln Memorial”, he declared. It would soon be renamed the “Lincoln Mercury Memorial”. McCurry was joking of course. Wasn’t he?

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David Morris

David Morris is co-founder of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and currently ILSR's distinguished fellow. His five non-fiction books range from an analysis of Chilean development to the future of electric power to the transformation of cities and neighborhoods.  For 14 years he was a regular columnist for the Saint Paul Pioneer Press. His essays on public policy have appeared in the New York TimesWall Street Journal, Washington PostSalonAlternetCommon Dreams, and the Huffington Post.