November, 2 2023

Can I sell you the Golden Gate Bridge? How San Francisco’s savvy business leaders are betting on ineffective advertising to save the city’s reputation

Advertising is effective in influencing consumers to appreciate brands and buy products. But it has limited power to change deeply held beliefs or opinions on core issues.  Public trust and perception are shaped by actions and a track record which cannot be overcome through advertising.

San Francisco, the city by the bay, has seen better days. While the iconic Golden Gate Bridge might be alluring, it is not for sale–at least not yet.

In an effort to revitalize San Fransisco’s dwindling image, a group of astute business leaders bought a bridge by embarking on a meek $4 million advertising campaign in a bid to preserve the city’s once-gleaming portrait.

The “It All Starts Here” campaign boasts an ensemble of local heavyweights including UberLevi Strauss, Pixar, and OpenAI. This non-political effort focuses on capturing private-sector attention rather than targeting voters or elected officials.

Similarly, in May, the San Francisco Travel Association made a $6 million investment in the “Always San Francisco” campaign aimed at luring business and leisure travelers back. In February, a social media initiative, “Heart of SF,” was launched to spotlight downtown businesses and events.

A lack of focus

Regrettably, these actions, however admirable, do not tackle the SF experience of current times, visible realities, or the means to effect necessary change.

San Francisco faces a multitude of inherent challenges that no advertising or digital campaign can transform–soaring living expenses and taxes, the challenges linked to mental health and substance abuse, a homelessness crisis that is causing hygiene concerns, and a surge in crime that is contributing to empty office spaces and a deteriorating downtown district.

Across the city, these issues have caused AT&T, Anthropologie, Banana Republic, Crate & Barrel, Sacks, H&M, Whole Foods, and First Republic, as well as many others, to close their offices.

As store closings require realtors to paper “for lease” signs over shopfront windows, foot traffic and shoppers are further discouraged. Since 2019, 47% of businesses in Union Square have closed, according to the San Francisco Standard.

Not understanding your audience

One would think strategic business leaders would not easily fall for “I have a bridge to sell you”–and that they would understand the basic problems everyone in the city is facing and what is necessary to drive change.

Advertising is most effective in influencing consumers to appreciate brands and buy products–but it has limited power to change deeply held beliefs or opinions on core issues. It’s the wrong tool for the problem at hand.

Public trust and perception are shaped by a track record and actions that cannot be overcome through advertising. Bud Light is trying to do just that, with little or no effect.

These campaigns will not change the root causes of the city’s downfall. However, if these influencers collaborate and unite their campaigns to create a call to action and reform aimed at policymakers, then there is a chance some initiatives could thrive.

Without a sustained and targeted transformation, individual campaigns will stumble, and in doing so, fail to improve the public policies that gave rise to the city’s fundamental crises. The current environment is hardly an incentive for people to reside, build a business, or even visit.

Many of San Francisco’s issues can be overcome with substantive policy changes, reinforced with forthright communication and public relations, highlighting new conduct. Sadly, Silicon Valley, the epicenter of technological innovation, seems unable to suggest a new direction.

Other disappointing endeavors

Several other U.S. regions have tried similar advertising campaigns with little success. Connecticut’s “Make it Here” initiative aims to attract entrepreneurs and manufacturers. It will run in tandem with the “Find Your Vibe” tourism campaign. However, they face stiff competition from many states offering greater tangible incentives.

Earlier this year, the Partnership for New York attempted to recreate the successful 1970s “I love NY” campaign with an updated version, “We Love NYC“–but it failed to gain traction and sparked widespread criticism on social media. It simply isn’t something people believe right now.

Regrettably, Madison Avenue and their clients bear the scars of countless unsuccessful multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns that attempted to shape public opinion without a substantial foundation of genuine transformation: British Petroleum’s “Clean Energy” in the aftermath of Deepwater, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola’s “anti-obesity” campaigns, and many more.

Other advertising programs quickly unraveled when they failed to align with prevailing public norms and values: Balenciaga in 2022, H&M in 2018, Dove in 2017, Pepsi in 2017, Nivea in 2017, to name a few. The list is long.

Continuing to attempt to change opinions through advertising in the face of contrary facts is futile, resulting in wasted time and resources as expectations go unmet.

In light of the urgency of ongoing threats to San Francisco’s stature, it is crucial for organizations to come together, engage in open, transparent, perhaps even tough discussions, and mobilize enough pressure to bring about significant policy reforms.

Can I sell you a bridge?

About the Authors:


September, 5 2023

Unlocking the Power of Artificial IntelligenceUnlocking the Power of Artificial Intelligence

Today, artificial intelligence (AI) stakes are colossal with its capability of fabricating any reality whatsoever. Boards and management must be at the forefront of understanding the ethical adaptation of this advancing phenomenon, as well as grasp and embrace the depth and breadth of this all-encompassing technology, how it is changing business … and why ethical oversight is necessary. The article  outlines five key action items for establishing a code of conduct for use of AI that will be vital to protect company brands and reputation.


May, 22 2023

Agita. Do you feel it too? It’s the relentless pounding on our senses that leaves us feeling uncertain and uneasy

The incessant onslaught of news and promotional messages could be undermining trust and causing anxiety.