I hate New York’s nonsensical new tourism campaign

What do you do with NY? ()
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Today, Governor Andrew Cuomo and representatives from the ad firm BBDO unveiled a new tourism campaign in which New Yorkers are encouraged to mess up the most successful tourism brand the state has ever managed to create.

The idea is to create a series of "logos" for New York in which the famous heart symbol in "I ♥ NY," centerpiece of the "I LOVE NEW YORK" campaign that began in the late '70s, is replaced with whatever they feel like putting in there.

An ad showing people doing that, which began airing today, has already showcased some unfortunate results, like "I [BALL] NY." But a double meaning is better than no meaning at all, which is what we get with "I [LIGHTHOUSE] NY" and "I [PIZZA] NY."

Of course it's supposed to be about what these people love about New York. But the pizza replaces the love, rather than becoming its object. The object in the puzzle, when you resolve it into a sentence, is New York. (If you love lighthouses, why not replace the letters "NY" with the letters "LIGHTHOUSES"? Because that's not what BBDO wants you to do! Also, no photographs and nothing lewd, please.)

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Glaser's design was precise, and serious brand innovators are, too. There's a flawless internal logic to the best brand identities. The new campaign gives the I ♥ NY logo a personality disorder.

In marketing materials over many years, New York State has described Milton Glaser's famous "I ♥ NY" logo as a rebus. It isn't, and that's the source of my problem.

Technically speaking, a rebus is a picture or symbol that is inserted in place of a syllable or a word. Often the picture has nothing to do with the word. "H + [a picture of an eye]" thus reads as "Hi" or "High." Not "Aitch See."

Glaser's brilliant logo for the old "I LOVE NY" campaign uses a heart in place of the word love. The confusing part, if you are stuck on the idea that it is a rebus, is that it seems like it's meant to be read "I HEART NY." Intuitively, people understood—and the use of "heart" now as a verb, which dates to Glaser's logo, is actually therefore a joke, and not a misunderstanding.

It's worse than that, of course, because when letters do appear in a rebus on their own (not "plussed" or "minussed" to a picture), they stand for the name of the letter. That's why you'd never see "H" on its own in a rebus, except in the rare instance in which the puzzler is meant to work the sound "AITCH" into the solution. If Glaser's logo were a rebus, the solution would be "I HEART EN WHY."

In fact, in 1977, when Glaser did two weeks of work on the logo on a pro bono basis, rebus puzzles were extremely familiar to audiences, having been at the center of the popular television game show "Concentration," which ran on NBC and was syndicated daily at the time. For what it's worth, "Concentration" played a little loose with the idea of the rebus, as you can see from this picture of host Bob Clayton standing in front of the puzzle with the solution "The Jimmy Stewart Show."

Glaser's logo is better than a rebus, though. It invented a new relationship to the heart symbol. The heart always symbolized love; now, it was replacing the word. 

Since 1977, the number of occasions on which an effort has been made to insert corporate logos, other pictograms, really anything at all into that "heart" spot in Glaser's logo has resulted in a wide variety of visual spam, stuff that for years has irked me.

I was thrilled some time ago to come across a Tumblr from local designer Dan Redding, who solicited from readers (for a short time anyway) examples of manipulations of Glaser's logo. A quick search of your own on "I HEART ?" in Google will bring up lots more crap for you too (advice: Activate safe search).

There's the T-shirt in which the heart is replaced with a shamrock and the NY with a glass of Guinness. (What does "I SHAMROCK GUINNESS" mean? It means you're an idiot. Even if you don't read it as a shamrock—"I LUCK GUINNESS?" "I IRISH GUINNESS?"—it's a mess.)

There's the Kiehl's tote bag that reads "I ♥" and then, a capital letter K next to a silhouette of a sample bottle?

The Converse store in Soho made a large neon sign for its window in which the heart is replaced with a Converse symbol. I suppose every brand would like to believe that its logo is synonymous with ... something. But it's wishful thinking: The logo just means "CONVERSE," and this sign resolves to the meaningless and upsetting "I CONVERSE NY."

In case you think New York State, which has both copyright and trademark on the logo, is indifferent to these sorts of things, consider the extremely long 2008 document admonishing designers of travel literature on the correct and incorrect use of the logo. The one thing specifically not allowed: The replacement of the heart with some other symbol. The example used of a misuse of the logo is the replacement of the heart with a shamrock, in fact.

They did make one exception to the ban on mucking around with the "I ♥ NY" logo, which was to allow paying customers to do so. In 1994, the state began licensing the symbol, and made $1.8 million pimping it out during fiscal year 2011.

BBDO won a $50 million marketing contract for New York State's new "Open for Business" campaign. Tourism marketing is a small sliver of the effort ($5 million), because tourism is after all not the main business Cuomo wants to lure back to the state.

For any amount of money, I don't think I would want to take on a project where the job is to "refresh" what was arguably the most powerful logo in the history of advertising campaigns. I am sympathetic to the participants in the "innovention" meetings where everyone said over and over again that the most salient quality of that logo is that people like to reappropriate it in stupid ways. It's a meme that existed before the internet existed; before the word "meme" even existed, for most of us. But that's precisely what makes it so annoying.

As Cuomo knows, people are willing to pay for the pleasure of defacing the "I ♥ NY" logo. He didn't need to pay $5 million for the indignity.

It's said that Glaser made the original logo pro bono because he expected the campaign to last for a couple of months at most. Here's hoping this one actually does die off that fast.