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Oh good lord, yes, "I Love New York" is a brand for New York City.
To truly understand what the “I ❤ NY” campaign has done for New York City, you need to know what it was like in the decade prior to its launch. The New York of the late '60s and mid-70s was nothing like the New York of today.
The streets were filthy, crime was its highest level in history, a heroin and cocaine epidemic had gripped the city, and many neighbourhoods had fallen into disrepair.
National and international media coverage highlighted just how bad things were. The popular image of New York from that era was best captured in Neil Simon’s 1970 movie The Out of Towners, where the city had a central role in the plot. And the New York City as shown—dirty, crime-ridden, filled with graffiti, and hit by transit and garbage strikes—was not very far from reality.
To put it plainly, this was not a city people wanted to visit. Tourism numbers were already tanking when Alitalia released this ad in 1971:
Headlined, “Today, New York City disappears,” it was intended to be a humorous way to introduce the airline’s new nonstop service between Rome and Washington DC, Boston, Detroit and Philadelphia.
New York tourism officials, though, were not amused. A furious counteroffensive followed, including an official complaint that moaned how “the city’s problems are not going to be helped by exacerbating defeatist attitudes.” But that backfired spectacularly when the story got major play in the national press, making New York seem an even less desirable place to visit.
The Italian airline exploited the sentiment masterfully by advising travel agents: “If you don’t want them to see New York, tell them to see Alitalia.”
It gets worse
The situation in New York would get only more dire in the years that followed. Despite numerous reforms—including raising subway fares, closing several public hospitals, and reducing salaries—the city was running out of money.
In May 1975, in a desperate bid to restore fiscal sanity, Mayor Abraham Beame announced the city would be laying off more than 50,000 workers—or one-sixth of its employees.
The unions reacted with rage. Garbagemen went on strike; so did teachers.
But the greatest fury came from the police force, who were due to lose nearly 11,000 rank-and-file officers. Their most potent weapon? A booklet titled “WELCOME TO FEAR CITY: A Survival Guide for Visitors to the City of New York,” given out to people arriving at airports.
A million of these were reportedly printed for distribution. In addition, there were two other guides—“If You Haven’t Been Mugged Yet” and “When It Happens to You”—aimed at New York residents.
The Fear City guide was alarmist, with tips like “Stay off the streets after 6 p.m.,” “Avoid public transportation,” and “try not to go out alone.”
The city tried to block distribution of the booklets, but when it was unsuccessful, it sent representatives to Paris, Brussels, London and Frankfurt to make presentations about how it was safe for tourists to visit New York.
Out of cash
For all its efforts, New York was continuing to have trouble managing its finances. Matters came to a head on October 17, 1975, when $453 million of the city’s debts became due, but it only had $34 million in hand. If it failed to pay up, New York City would be officially bankrupt.
Despite numerous entreaties, President Gerald Ford was adamant that New York would receive no bailout from Washington. Goaded by his chief of staff Donald Rumsfeld—who hoped for Chicago to usurp New York’s position as the world’s financial capital—he went so far as to say he would veto any bill that attempted to rescue the city through federal funds. This led to the famous New York Daily News headline: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.”
Disaster loomed. It was estimated a default would bring down at least a hundred banks, lead to massive layoffs and hurt the value of the dollar abroad. But with mere hours left for the default to become official, Mayor Beame convinced (or, more accurately, blackmailed) the Teachers Union into coming through with the short-term loan New York needed.
It gave the city enough breathing room to get some of its affairs in order, which eventually led to Ford finally providing $2.3 billion in federal loans many months later.
The darkest night
While the fire may have been put out, the embers still glowed, ready to be stoked alive by the next gust of wind. And there were more than a few of those.
First there was Son of Sam, a serial killer whose crimes—starting from Christmas Eve 1975 through to August 1977—plunged the city into mass hysteria and led to international media coverage.
Then there were the live pictures of a rash of fires a few blocks over from Yankee Stadium during a World Series broadcast in 1977, which reportedly inspired sports commentator Howard Cosell to exclaim: “Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is burning!”
Worst of all, though, was a 25-hour blackout in mid-July that same year, which led to widespread arson, looting and riots across the city.
Image source: New York Daily News
This was, literally and metaphorically, New York’s darkest hour. The LA Times captured the mood perfectly through its headline: “CITY’S PRIDE IN ITSELF GOES DIM IN THE BLACKOUT.”
A new dawn
New York desperately needed something to change. Its image was in tatters, visitors were staying away out of fear, corporations were relocating, and residents found little to love about their own city.
Around this time, New York (the state, not the city) was looking for a new campaign to encourage tourism. Rebuilding NYC’s image, though, had to be central to their efforts.
Advertising agency Wells Rich Greene was hired to develop the campaign; simultaneously, graphic designer Milton Glaser—whose psychedelic poster of Bob Dylan had by then become a collectible—was asked to design a logo based off the theme the agency came up with.
From interviews and research on what visitors liked most, it was decided to promote Broadway theatre for the city, and the great outdoors for the rest of the state.
The theme they settled on: I Love New York.
Glaser came up with this logo in the back of a taxicab on the way to his meeting with the ad agency. He didn’t think too much of it at the time, and gave it away to the city for free. At the time, he believed the campaign was to last just a couple of months. (Spoiler alert: he was wrong).
The thrust of the campaign, though, was TV commercials. Featuring some 80 Broadway actors, singers and dancers performing the I Love New York theme song composed by Steve Karmen, these were launched on Valentine’s Day 1978. Commercials, placed in 12 markets in the U.S. and Canada, ran initially for five weeks.
The results were immediate.
There were some 93,800 requests for the tourism brochure after the commercials aired. Hotel occupancy in New York City hit 90 percent, year-on-year earnings from travel activity shot up nearly 20 percent.
Soon, “I Heart NY” sweat shirts, buttons and other memorabilia began appearing everywhere. Airlines began to use the line in their own advertising. New York more than doubled the budget for the campaign the following year, but by then, it had taken a life of its own.
Crucially, the campaign appeared to have awakened something within New Yorkers, as well.
As Glaser put it in an interview with the magazine The Believer, there was an extraordinary, almost overnight behavioural shift.
“(Earlier) you were just walking through all this dog shit day after day, in this filthy city, garbage, and so on. And then the most extraordinary thing happened: There was a shift in sensibility. One day people said, ‘I’m tired of stepping in dog shit. Get this f**king stuff out of my way.’ Within a very short time it became socially untenable to allow your dog to shit on the street. Now, I don’t know what produces those behavioural shifts. From one day where it’s OK, and then suddenly the city simultaneously got fed up and said, ‘It’s our city, we’re going to take it back, we’re not going to allow this stuff to happen.’ And part of that moment was this campaign.”
Suddenly, New Yorkers appeared to have rediscovered pride in their city. While the cheery logo and slogan might not have single-handedly worked to reverse the city’s fortunes, it certainly seemed to have acted as a catalyst.
And people noticed.
The mainstream media which had for years been describing New York’s slow death were now celebrating its apparent recovery. Phrases like “amazing comeback” (used by the LA Times) increasingly began to get thrown around.
Travel writers who visited New York in 1978 began reporting on the beautifully renovated hotels, the spectacular views from the new 5-star restaurant atop the north tower of the World Trade Centre, the fabulous new musicals on Broadway.
Visitors began flooding back; hotels, restaurants and nightclubs started to get booked; the tourism industry was booming; and the city’s recovery had well and truly begun.
So did “I Love NY” help create a brand for New York City? It did more than that. It pretty much saved New York City.
Today, New York City is the most popular destination in the United States for international travel, with a record 58.3 million tourists in 2015. The “I Love New York” line continues to be used in marketing initiatives even after all these years, with some $50 million allotted for the 2016-17 campaign.
Here’s one of the most recent television ads that was aired.
Walk around Manhattan today and you’ll find pretty much every store that caters to tourists is packed with T-shirts, mugs, keychains and more, all emblazoned with the iconic slogan. A 2011 report (the latest I could find) said the city still earns some $30 million a year through licensing the logo.
Not too shabby for a campaign that was conceived 40 years ago!
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