Image wars

In the wake of Amadou Diallo's killing and Abner Louima's abuse, the New York Police Department is looking for a few good recruits.

Topics: Rudy Giuliani,

As testimony continues in the case of Abner Louima, the Haitian immigrant who was allegedly sodomized with a stick at the hands of four Brooklyn police officers, the New York Police Department has turned to Madison Avenue for an image makeover. The department has launched a $10 million ad campaign, which includes dozens of TV commercials, subway posters, radio spots and billboards, ostensibly aimed at recruiting 2,600 new officers by January.

But the NYPD’s ads do not look like traditional recruitment ads. The initial six spots, the first of dozens promised from Arnell Group Brand Consulting (better known as Tommy Hilfiger’s ad agency), function more like corporate image “feel good” ads for the department. Simple and direct, they are shot in warm tones, with fleshy close-ups of their subjects. Various crime victims tell their often horrific stories and police officers quietly recount their roles as saviors. In one spot, a woman who lived in constant fear of her abusive husband says she would not be alive if it wasn’t for Detective Mark Claxton. In another, Sgt. Lino Minetto tells of how he took a small girl whose legs had been crushed by a truck to the hospital. The spots are backed by light jazz from a synthesizer, and conclude with a close-up of the NYPD badge and the tag line “Join us.” The ads have that minimal level of production and flash more often associated with public service announcements.

The amount of money dedicated to the recruitment campaign is staggering. By comparison, Compaq Computer Corp. — which is competing for new staff in an industry where there are 250,000 jobs available across the country and only 85,000 computer science graduates to fill them — allocated the same amount of money to its national recruitment efforts as the NYPD has to a single city. Either the department is using a sledgehammer to crack a nut or there is another motive for advertising.

In fact, the timing of the campaign and the heartwarming feel of the ads themselves have raised suspicions that the city’s taxpayers are simply bankrolling a public relations effort to convince the city’s residents that New York’s finest are not the out-of-control thugs they are portrayed as in the media.



After being hailed as a key factor in the city’s falling crime rate since Mayor Rudy Giuliani took office, the police department has taken a beating in recent months. A February opinion poll — taken more than a year after the Louima incident and shortly after street vendor Amadou Diallo died in a hail of 41 police bullets from four white officers as he stood unarmed in his own apartment building — put police brutality as the No. 1 concern of New Yorkers. The image problem only worsened after Giuliani and Police Commissioner Howard Safir appeared unapologetic for the Diallo killing and unresponsive to New Yorkers’ growing concerns about police tactics.

The new campaign marks the first time the city has dedicated significant resources to recruitiment, according to Deputy Commissioner Yolanda Jimenez, who is in charge of the campaign. Until now, the force has been able to keep the police academies filled simply by sending officers into colleges and community centers to talk to potential recruits.

The campaign immediately hit a snag in the form of persistent police critic Al Sharpton, who made tabloid headlines with complaints that none of the black- or Latino-targeted radio stations had been contacted to run radio spots. Predictably, he found the TV ads unconvincing. “They didn’t look much like recruitment ads to me,” he said. “It seems to me to be a campaign to persuade us to take the police department as it is and asking us who want reform to appreciate their good work.”

In response, Peter Arnell, who created the spots for the police department, noted that the radio and print portions of the campaign had not been approved by the client until a few days ago and weren’t ready to roll. There are, however, Spanish versions of some of the TV ads, and minority-targeted media was always part of the plan, just not the initial mainstream splash, he said.

Still, the city might find it tough to get on the radio waves anytime soon. May is sweeps month, and inventory at the city’s leading stations, which are also the ones with the largest black and Latino audiences, is tight.

Both Arnell and Deputy Commissioner Jimenez take pains to distance their campaign from Diallo and Louima. In two lengthy interviews, neither Jimenez nor Arnell mentioned the two victims’ names, despite being asked to address the matter directly. Both insisted that the campaign is strictly about recruitment, though they did both acknowledge that in order for the campaign to succeed, it must dispel negative ideas about the police that the recent brutality cases have created.

One commercial comes close to addressing the issue of police brutality head-on, but from the police’s point of view. In the ad, Detective Wally Salem recounts the statistic that “98 percent of police officers never shoot their guns.” He goes on to describe being shot three times by a suspect on a busy street and how in the seconds during which he realized he might die, he decided not to draw his weapon. “If I’d have taken out my gun, with my shooting, there would’ve been more shooting … I figure we have to have no shooting, not more shooting.” The subtext, writ large in this case, is, “We need officers who know when not to shoot people.”

For Arnell, making the spots has been a labor of love. He is a longtime NYPD volunteer and currently a vice chairman for the Law Explorers, a sort of police adjunct of the Boy Scouts. He is also a big fan of Commissioner Safir and Mayor Giuliani, and is genuinely amazed at the police’s contribution to the city’s storied drop in crime. Perhaps most important, Arnell volunteered to make the ads for free.

Arnell admits that, had he entered the formal pitch process, his shop would probably not have been considered. So he approached Safir directly with an offer to do the work free of charge and with two crucial ideas for the campaign: Show victims of crime reminding everyone what cops really do on a daily basis, and don’t show a single NYPD uniform. Hence, the few officers who do appear in the commercials are all in casual-Friday clothing.

“NYPD is under siege,” Arnell says, but “the people are in touch with the importance of the police department and the importance of what they do, very clearly. I think the press, unfortunately, is not, because sensationalism sells papers [and] that has detracted from the contributions most officers make on a daily basis, and that’s what we tried to portray” in the campaign.

“There wasn’t one [crime victim] that we spoke to who disagreed to participate,” Arnell adds. “I think that says something about where people’s heads are at … We didn’t in any way, shape or form put [their opinions] through a filter,” Arnell points out. However, all the participants were provided by the NYPD, which sent a memo to senior staff asking them to find suitable stories of everyday heroism specifically for the campaign.

Robert Goldman, a professor of sociology and anthropology at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore., and the author of “Sign Wars, The Cluttered Landscape of Advertising,” is less sure how the public will receive the ads. “I fully expect that it will be a mixed bag in terms of how it plays out. People who are opposed will see it as salt in the wound, people who support the cops will see it as good that they’re reaching out,” he says. “The problem here is that unlike most crises that corporations encounter, this is about a crisis of authority, an authoritarian institution that has gone over the edge of the contract that we as citizens have with them. The notion of this campaign is even more cynical than the viewers. It presumes that people have no memory and people have no concerns whatsoever.”

The NYPD and Arnell have done their best to prepare for that type of response. Jimenez held a series of focus groups with young men and women from minority backgrounds to find out what reputation the force has on the street. She also held focus groups with police officers. Ironically, both groups had similar views of their relationship with each other; neither group felt the other treated them with enough respect or civility.

The department does not see the ad campaign as the silver bullet that will fix all of the NYPD’s problems. Jimenez oversees a multifaceted community outreach program intended to cultivate understanding between the the police and the communities that regard the department with mistrust. It includes small gestures — such as ensuring that officers address the public as “sir” or “ma’am” — and more ambitious programs, like one in which undercover officers engage unsuspecting uniformed officers on the street to test their responses.

“There are issues of concern between young men and the minority community and the police; some of it is perception, but some of it is reality and that needs to be addressed,” said Jimenez. Advertising is a vehicle by which we’re looking to get the word out. Hopefully it’ll be an opportunity to talk about the job that is done by the NYPD,” says Jimenez.

One nagging concern is the fact that neither Jimenez nor Arnell knew the number of officers they had to recruit until after the campaign was shot. (Jimenez had to look the number up and produced it two weeks after she was interviewed.)

New York University professor Mitchell Moss, an expert on New York and urban affairs, applauds the use of TV to attract candidates. But he hopes the NYPD’s commitment to hiring minorities will go beyond lip service paid by department officials. “There’s got to be follow-through,” he said. “The more important issue is how [minorities who want jobs] will be handled once they apply.”

By anyone’s account, pulling more city residents and people of color into the NYPD can only be a good thing. But will the campaign change New Yorkers’ attitudes toward the police? Goldman sums up the situation with this simile: “It’s like a father who beats his wife and comes home with a big gift, saying ‘I know I’m wrong.’” It’s now up to New York’s residents to decide whether they feel able to forgive.

Jim Edwards is a senior reporter at Adweek.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows

Comments

0 Comments

Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>