Companies Say Amendment May Curb Mall Events

NFL Gala Leads Bingaman to Push Through Legislation Cracking Down on Size of Corporate Banners

Posted September 23, 2003 at 6:09pm

The Senate voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to rein in corporate advertising on the National Mall even as a string of companies that help fund events on the Mall threatened to withhold their financial support if the legislation becomes law.

More than a dozen corporate sponsors of regular events on the Mall said privately that they may revoke their financial support if they are not given adequate recognition in the future.

The threats could jeopardize popular annual events ranging from the National Cherry Blossom Festival and Smithsonian Folklife Festival to the Screen on the Green.

“Why co-sponsor an event if you can’t be mentioned as a sponsor?” asked a spokesman for the benefactor of one popular event.

At issue is language that Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) added by a 92-4 vote to a bill funding the Interior Department that would severely limit the size of banners trumpeting the names of corporate sponsors of events on the Mall.

The amendment would also ban the National Park Service from issuing permits to events that include commercial advertising.

Bingaman offered the amendment after complaining that the National Park Service should not have permitted the use of the Mall for professional football’s season-opening concert earlier this month, an event that Bingaman said amounted to “commercial exploitation” of the Mall by Pepsi, Verizon Communications and Coors.

The three-hour show, dubbed “NFL Kickoff Live from the National Mall Presented by Pepsi Vanilla,” featured performances by Britney Spears and Aerosmith, among others.

“The event was used as the basis for a commercial television production and commercials were broadcast to the crowd over large-screen televisions on the Mall,” Bingaman complained on the Senate floor last week.

As a result, he offered an amendment that bans commercial advertising on the Mall and restricts the size of banners recognizing the corporate sponsors of sanctioned events on the Mall.

According to the amendment, the corporate sponsors could be recognized in letters no bigger than one-third the size of the lettering used to display the name of the event itself.

Still, many corporations said they would be reluctant to offer financial support for such events if they are prohibited from receiving adequate recognition.

“We would seriously reconsider our support,” said one corporate sponsor.

None of the companies permitted its name to be included in this story. But nearly all companies contacted expressed hesitation about participating in future Mall events.

Even the National Cherry Blossom Festival Committee, the umbrella group that sponsors the celebrated spring tradition, declined to discuss the matter for the record.

But the National Park Service has not been as reticent.

In a letter to Bingaman before today’s vote, Park Service Director Fran Mainella said that “without the ability to secure financial assistance from third parties — who traditionally require some sort of on-site sponsor recognition — it is likely that many of the special event applicants would not be able to hold their events.”

Without the corporate sponsorships, the National Park Service may be unable to foot the bill for the events.

If HBO rescinded its financial backing of the Screen on the Green — the summer movie series sponsored by HBO and AOL — “I think it would cause a problem for the National Park Service,” said Bill Line, a spokesman for the agency, last week.

Suzanne Pinto, an HBO spokeswoman, declined to talk about pending legislation.

Other companies shared that sentiment.

“We don’t want to comment on un-passed legislation,” said Tim Fitzpatrick, a spokesman for Comcast Corp., a sponsor of the Cherry Blossom Festival.

But he added that the company’s “community commitment is a lot deeper than simple signage or visibility.”

In all, the legislation could affect more than 1.3 million Americans who attended the 40 corporate-sponsored events on the National Mall so far this year, according to the Interior Department, which oversees the National Park Service.

A spokesman for Bingaman said the measure simply seeks to prohibit overblown advertising and sponsor-recognition banners like the ones displayed during the NFL’s concert.

“He’s not saying that there should not be any sponsor recognition,” said spokesman Bill Wicker. “But it’s a real, real stretch to try to compare the NFL’s season-opening party to the Race for the Cure.”