On June first while reading the New York Times, I came across a full page advertisement by a group called “Alliance for New York City Business.” The large headline trumpeted: “one of the World’s Top Economic Powers Isn’t a Country.” I read on to learn that “It’s New York City.” The evidence for this eye-catching headline followed with these words: “A fact that isn’t too surprising when you consider that New York’s market for goods and services, at over $100 billion, is equal to those of West Germany and the United Kingdom combined.”
This statement, of course, is not a fact at all. It is false. West Germany alone is the world’s fourth largest economic power with a gross national product of well over one trillion dollars. Its market for goods and services towers over that of New York City.
How could such an error have formed the basis for a major business promotion of New York City? I decided to make some calls. There was no listing for the Alliance, but after some routings through the New York City Chamber of Commerce, I found a gentleman in the Deputy Mayor’s office who was knowledgeable.
He said that the Alliance was an ad hoc group of corporate executives who sponsored the advertisement, but that the dynamic behind this campaign came from the Mayor’s office. The same ad is to be placed in many other publications drawing on a budget of $500,000. Four-fifths of that sum comes from an educational foundation, called NYBAK that receives pledges and cash from the business community. The other $100,000 comes from local tax revenues.
I pointed out the mistake. He replied that the ad really was referring to the greater New York metropolitan area which includes parts of New Jersey and Connecticut. I noted that the ad made no such reference, but that even if it did, the equivalence with West Germany and the United Kingdom was grossly inaccurate.
He wondered why I was so interested. I replied because deceptive advertising is deceptive advertising whether conducted by business or government. More broadly, I was curious about how such an egregious error had gotten by all the people who passed on the advertisement which, he conceded, had many reviewers.
First there were the people who drafted the copy and then the people who approved the copy. From there the copy went to the public relations firm of Ogilvy and Mather who developed, reportedly without charging a commission, the format and placing of the advertisement. Corporate officials looked over the ad and then, of course, so did the people at the newspapers and magazines who agreed, for a price, to print the ad.
All in all, probably over a hundred people read the ad before it first saw print. None of them caught the error. After it appeared in the New York Times, with a daily circulation exceeding one million, the gentleman informed me that other than myself, the only person who called was a Professor who thought the $100 billion figure should be reduced because so many of these goods and services were bought with welfare checks. It may be tempting to explain this high frequency oversight as a product of many New Yorkers’ tendency toward urban megalomania. But that would be too sweeping a generalization and one that itself is not big enough to explain the numerical magnitude of this mistake.
More likely, the many people in responsibility missed catching this miscue because of a common bureaucratic syndrome that infects both business and government. It’s called: “someone else looked it over so why should I bear down.” This passing of responsibility to others is what causes scores of engineers in a company to miss product defects or dozens of editors and fact-checkers of mass news magazines to let factual blunders reach their readers.
Two days later the gentleman from the Mayor’s office officially admitted the mistake in a telephone conversation. It had occurred, he said, when the preparers of the ad took the alleged equivalence between the City and the two European nations from a New York Port Authority Report. The Port Authority researchers, he bemoaned, had a good reputation.
Is the Mayor’s office going to move toward changing the headline and the copy which bears false witness to the rest of the world about New York, I asked? The erroneous paragraph will be deleted, he assured, but they were not certain about changing the headline. They were looking for some other interpretation such as comparing New York City’s economy with the top 200 nations and seeing where the Big Apple fits on the ladder. He
still, however, could not understand why I was so interested. Now you see why hope must spring eternal.