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Editorial: March 2023

Several careers ago I was an advertising copywriter. Like most other copywriters who sit all day writing ads, I looked up to various advertising luminaries as a source for ideas and inspiration.

My hero of heroes was Bill Bernbach—principal member of the renowned 20th Century ad agency, Doyle Dane Bernbach, and the brilliant mind whose quirky ads sold many millions of Volkswagen Beetles between the 1950s and 1980s, along with countless other iconic advertising campaigns that forever changed advertising and consumer marketing.

Along with brilliant ads, Bernbach was known for his many insightful quotes, of which my favorite is: “A great ad campaign will make a bad product fail faster. It will get more people to know it's bad.”

That quote came to mind last month when, for the first time, I stepped onto the gleaming new platforms of the Grand Central Madison LIRR terminal. Marveling at the surrounding beauty, I imagined first time visitors to New York taking in the magnificence of the station and picturing city streets paved in marble awaiting upstairs. Then I quietly lamented their inevitable disappointment.

About five years ago that would not have crossed my mind. When New York City was still clean and safe. Even if by then it was already running on the fumes of past administrations, the energy was high, the vibe was good, and most still considered New York City the ultimate good product.

An opulent new entranceway to the city in that not-so-distant past would have been the perfect representation of what awaited above. No more. Impressive as the Grand Central expansion may be, the heartbreaking levels of filth, crime and mayhem in our recently devolved city makes it seem a bit misleading; like a delicious entrée followed by last week’s meatloaf.

I hope the people running today’s above-ground municipal train wreck are close to equalizing the clash between the soothing calm down below and arbitrary chaos at street level. Arriving in luxury to then endure a list of frightening unknowns gets old fast. It would be tragic if the contrast only serves to chase people away. The ultimate great ad for a lousy product.

Here’s where I switch sides: Tesla recently recalled something north of 350,000 cars due to a serious flaw in its self-driving navigation software. A pretty serious flaw, from what I understand. Yet, I’m still waiting to hear of a single Tesla owner ditching their car and writing off the brand. Tesla owners love those cars, deeply; there’s little chance a recall will change that.

Maybe New York is on the recall list of a different sort. Judging by the direction the city is going, it’s no stretch to analogize that the Big Apple is having a navigation issue of its own. Long term, my bet is most New Yorkers love New York and just waiting for someone tough, smart, and politically courageous enough to get us out of this mess.

When that day comes, it will be clear to all that placing those magnificent new welcome mats of Grand Central Madison and the renovated Penn Station was the greatest possible ad campaign for the best product anywhere.