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Mixed messages at a time of economic stress

Why does the council wish me a Merry Christmas?

By Lindsay Shelton

Click to enlarge

Wellingtonians bask in the sun next under the Christmas tree placed in Midland Park by the WCC

The Wellington City Council wants me to have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

I discovered the council’s message when I was waiting for a bus – not exactly the place where you expect to receive seasonal greetings. The bus stop is at the end of my street. It’s one of the glass Adshel constructions with advertising as a part of the deal. On the occasions when I look at the advertising space, it usually seems to be occupied by things to drink or products to make my hair cleaner and shinier. (Fructis used a fetching shade of green in one of its recent campaigns.)

So I wasn’t expecting Christmas greetings to be advertised at the bus stop. And I hadn’t given any thought that this would be a constructive way of spending my rates payments. When I got to the bus stop, I looked to the right. No bus was in sight. Then I looked to the left and there was the message.

The city council wished me a merry Christmas and a happy new year and (in smaller letters) it advised me to check its website to find out about reduced hours during the holidays. The message was accompanied by a stylized Christmas tree, topped by something which at first glance seemed to be a glittery disco ball.

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I was fascinated that the council had chosen the end of my street for its Christmas greetings. After the bus arrived and took me into the city (the twelfth most desirable city in the world according to another message from the council), I decided to see what other sites had been chosen to spread the seasonal message.

The council seemed to be selective in delivering its greetings. My unscientific survey discovered a poster at the edge of the bypass on Willis Street (in one of the glass-roofed shelters for pedestrians waiting for the lights to change). But I didn’t see any other council Christmas messages in mid-city bus shelters. Instead, I found plenty of messages suggesting I buy tickets for “Chrissie in Brissie” (the campaign looks better than it sounds) or for the next Phoenix game at the Stadium or for Lotto’s $4million prizes. There were even some familiar messages about hair products, though without any seasonal greetings.

In Courtenay Place I checked the advertising sign on top of the Embassy Theatre, which is dominated by the council’s absolutely/positively/Wellington logo which is shown in interminably rapid rotation 24 hours a day. The messages on the sign include a promotion by the City Mission, something about becoming a Christmas star by taking part in on-line auctions, as well as Metservice weather forecasts and repeated advertisements from the owners of the sign itself. But there are no Christmas greetings from the council on that prime site – only the logo, though I suppose the logo’s slogan is a sort-of message in its own right.

Then I noticed flags hanging on poles: each one featured the stylized Christmas tree from my bus stop, and I realized that I was wrong about the disco ball which was in fact an image of Neil Dawson’s much-admired Ferns sculpture above Civic Square, shining like a Christmas star. So it was a reasonable guess that the flags were also conceived by the council’s Christmas greetings department, except that the flags weren’t wishing me a merry Christmas. The only message on the flags was the “absolutely positively” slogan.

The council’s 24-page monthly newspaper is also called Absolutely Positively Wellington; it sheds more light on the council’s involvement with Christmas. More than 400 Christmas flags will be flying this year, announces the newspaper in its December issue. It doesn’t mention Christmas greetings in bus stops, but it says the council receives a lot of positive public feedback for its Christmas decorations which include “an eight-metre-tall Christmas tree covered in baubles, streamers and fairy lights” in Midland Park. (Someone should remind them of the unfortunate political connotations of the “baubles” word.)

There are more seasonal messages in the council newsletter.

The front page carries a photograph of Santa Claus with the mayor and her three grandchildren on an unnamed beach. “Wellington’s the place to be for summer,” is the message under the photo.

On the second page, another photo of the Mayor, this time with a tuatara. “I wish you and your families season’s greetings and the happiest of holidays,” she writes, after telling us that though 2008 was a great year for Wellington “2009 might not be so easy.” She assures us that “we cannot let our spending get out of line with rises in inflation and other economic indicators.” Perhaps the publication and distribution of monthly 24-page newsletters, together with Christmas greetings in bus stops and flags on lamp posts, will be debated next year as “out of line” spending.

On another page, the mayor writes about the global downturn and its impact on her council’s preparation of a new ten-year plan. (“We need to be prudent and careful in our short term decisions but not lose sight of our medium to long-term goals.”)

However, the four central pages in the council’s newspaper are far from offering advice about being prudent and careful. Instead the council wants us to have fun, and gives reasons why I should be attending bodyrock (incredible routines), new year’s eve in Civic Square (shouts and cheers), beach volleyball (cheer on our national players), summer thunder (jumps, thrills and spills), festival day (great entertainment), a circus explosion (popcorn and candyfloss and spectacular performances), films by starlight (film lovers rejoice!) a Valentine spectacular (a fun-filled night), the colossal squid (weighs nearly half a tonne!), and the Wellington Cup (thrills and glamour). The council even wants its citizens to attend the Crusty Demons “unleash hell” show, where we will presumably watch to see whether the death-defying stunts succeed in defying death, or not.

But the council is not focusing only on its ideas of good times. Its newspaper spends almost two pages listing streets which are to be re-sealed next year. As a Brooklyn resident, I wonder why it’s necessary for me to be told about streets in Tawa or even Karori. But this section does have a seasonal connection. There’s another photo of Santa Claus, who must have some significance for the council as he’s already been seen on the front page with the mayor.

Two photos of Santa Claus? It’s such extravagance in the council’s monthly newspaper that makes me feel unseasonally critical. Half a page about a new changing shelter at Lyall Bay. Half a page about taking audio tours at the Central Library. Two-thirds of a page about not drinking too much. An entire page about the council’s holiday opening hours (the same ones which the bus stop poster told me to check on the website.)

And large photos of councillors as well as the mayor. Cr Best checks the contents of emergency survival buckets at the ACC offices. Cr Pannett walks her dogs at Lyall Bay. Cr Morrison with a lifeguard. Cr McKinnon at the opening of a marine reserve. Crs Goulden, Gill and Ahipene Mercer on a revamped walkway. Cr Wade-Brown showing us how to save water. (There’s also a photo of a tap).

By comparison, the Wellington Regional Council takes a more frugal approach in its “Our Region” newsletter. Its newsletter is quarterly rather than monthly. It’s not only less frequent. It’s also a more modest publication – eight A4 pages (“produced sustainably”) rather than 24 twice-as-large glossy A3 pages. And it takes a less frivolous attitude to life. No crusty demons. The December issue proposes things to do which are mainly walks on tracks through native bush and reserves.

The regional council succeeds in summarising 20 events on each A4 page, in comparison with the city council which needs twice the space for half the number of events. There are no Christmas messages, there’s no Santa Claus, and apart from two small photos of Fran Wilde presenting environmental awards, there are only miniscule head-and-shoulders photos of regional councillors – in total occupying less space than any one of the Wellington councillors’ photographs. The regional council repeats the message about saving water. But it does this in a quarter of the space used by the city council. And without a photo of a tap.

The Wellington City Council has a model website, clear and concise and impressively up to date, and not, as far as I can tell, wanting to wish me a merry Christmas. The council issues professionally-written press releases about its policies (though I had never seen them till I became a Scoop reader). But in the new era of financial restraint, it needs to deliver its messages without the need for more extravagant communications.

These include not only the 24-page monthly newspaper but also its full-page “weekly council guide” advertisements in the Dominion Post. Almost half of its 18 December advertisement promotes the Summer City Festival which has already been given four pages in the council’s newspaper and is also being promoted in the council’s Grab a Summer publication which is in constant over-supply at supermarkets and libraries.

The December 18 advertisement doesn’t only fill one full page. It overflows on to two columns of the adjacent page. And why? To list repairs to a water main and roadworks scheduled for eight streets in January.

How could the council have avoided the need to buy so much advertising space? Well, text can be edited and layouts can be reduced, to anticipate the tougher times which are anticipated by the mayor. I could make suggestions about messages which could have been removed from the big advertisement at no disadvantage to ratepayers. One of them involves the stylised Christmas tree and the twice-repeated advice to visit the website.

And I have just noticed something which I hadn’t observed on my first reading: at the bottom of the advertisement, underneath the Christmas tree, the city council is repeating its message wishing me a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Evidently it’s not satisfied with messages in bus stops.


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