Big Snapple? Selling the City, Drink by Drink

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg held a news conference on September 9th which was described by the New York Post this way: "Looking more like a pitchman than a politician, the mayor bought an orange-mango juice drink from a Snapple machine, opened it and took a sip."

In so doing, the Mayor's common sense snapped, as he committed New York City unilaterally to naming Snapple as the official water, juice and iced tea provider for the nation's largest metropolis. The elaborate five-year agreement -- not publically available -- transferred $166 million from Snapple to the City in return for exclusive selling rights of these and other products in the public schools and public buildings. Snapple's logo is to go on ferries and garbage cans.

About forty million dollars of this sum would go to the Schools and the rest to the city's general budget. Snapple won the selection contest over seven other beverage sellers which the Mayor refused to name.

The City's chief marketing officer (that's his title) said that the Snapple agreement was both "relevant" and "tasteful". The Mayor flagged the future of selling New York City without asking its citizens: "This agreement is the first in a limited number of high-quality partnerships that we think will greatly enhance our efforts to promote and market New York City," he enthused.

Old-timers years ago would have wondered what the Mayor means by marketing New York City. Cities were viewed more benignly when they were more livable, more employable at good wages, more replete with public institutions like good libraries, good public transit, good schools, good hospitals and clinics and good recreational facilities in the neighborhoods. New York City is crumbling on these measurements.

Its officials, including the Mayor, cannot even protect its poor children from the chronic, brain and body damaging lead-based paint poisoning in ageing tenements. But he can provide them with Snapple drinks of dubious nutritional quality and water in the vending machines. Water??? New York City has regularly tested as delivering about the finest water of any city in the country, according to Consumers Union. The schools' water coolers dispense it.

Obviously in this age of over-weening corporate commercialism and the placement of their executives in public office, marketing New York City means partnerships that promote products. What's next? Mayor Bloomberg isn't saying. Let's guess. Will New York City have its official cars, sports equipment, jeans, sneakers, computers, colas, hot dogs, pens and cereal? And what intriguing new areas for corporate logos will be made available? In his fervent quest for budget dollars (never mind the massive tax abatements the City has given to corporations), Mayor Bloomberg might want to make City Hall and his own backside available. Imagine what price a huge banner for GM or Apple Computer in front of City Hall will fetch year after year?

Unlike his uncanny ability to think through the demand for financial information that marked the rise of his Bloomberg communications Empire, the Mayor has not thought through the slippery slope that the City is now on.

Giving a company a monopoly over certain products sold to the City means preventing better products from superior competitors coming along to demonstrate what free enterprise means. What will happen if your designated monopolist -- say Snapple -- or its parent conglomerate Cadbury-Schweppes (a British company) gets into trouble with the law -- a criminal conviction, an Enron type scandal, a covered-up product defect? Does thesecret agreement with Snapple have an "out" clause? Who pays to remove the stigmatized company logos and signs all over the Big Apple?

What happens when the City government is wrestling with a policy that affects vending machine products? Will Snapple appear to have special influence in the Mayor's administration? Will the Mayor avoid doing the right thing for consumers because of some provision in the Snapple agreement that immunizes the company from some later public policy?

Already, the Snapple deal is making otherwise adult politicians look foolish. Mayor Bloomberg, according to the New York Times, announced the agreement "on the athletic field at John F. Kennedy High School in the Bronx, with a bright-orange Snapple vending machine and the high school's football team standing behind him." The Mayor said: "Given the global popularity of Snapple products, this will present the city with countless new opportunities to make positive impressions on people around the world" So reassuring!

What happens when people and students take issue, as they surely will, with Snapple's president's blanket statement that "New York City loves Snapple," and start rebelling against this fiat by City Hall, start wearing t-Shirts in school saying awful things about Snapple, boycotting the products, examining the contents of the drinks and showing that commercialism and public government do not mix. Who will Mayor Bloomberg's props be then?

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