"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
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 Jim Edwards.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)