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The District’s chief protector of moral values in the public square won’t be found in the office of the mayor’s religious adviser. Nor does this protector dwell in the city’s Office of the Attorney General—those folks may enforce laws, but they can’t control what the public sees while walking down the street. No, the power to keep the city looking like a good, clean American hometown resides in the same office that’s responsible for carving out bike lanes—the D.C. Department of Transportation (DDOT).
In a quirk of bureaucracy, DDOT holds the power to reject any advertisement proposed for the District’s 800-plus bus shelters, as laid out in the section of the city contract for bus-stop promos: “The District shall have the right to reject the posting of any advertisement which the District determines to be deceptive, misleading, untruthful, obscene, [or] sexually explicit.” That makes DDOT Director Dan Tangherlini censor-in-chief, the guy who must determine what is appropriate for innocent eyes from Friendship Heights to Congress Heights. “Ultimately, it’s me,” he says.
Tangherlini doesn’t claim any training for his role. He has a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Chicago and an MBA from the Wharton School. “I did take one philosophy class,” he says. Even his summer jobs filling potholes, painting lane lines, and cleaning roads for the Massachusetts Department of Public Works couldn’t prepare him for making decisions on ads that could trigger lawsuits against the city or drive angry church ladies into his office. He is a member of St. Peter’s of Capitol Hill, so in theory, Tangherlini has a venue for consulting with a higher authority. He offers only one broad standard for his role as judge: “I don’t think of myself as excessively prudish.”
DDOT has applied a very light touch to the censorship button. Over the last five years, only three ads have gone down under the censor’s thumb.
Tangherlini has personally weighed in on only one rejection. The first line of defense against excessive T&A at bus shelters resides deep in the bowels of DDOT, where Transportation Specialist Gil Williams and other staff in the Mass Transit Office get a preliminary look at proposals for smutty transit advertising. When they don’t feel comfortable making a call, they buck it up to Tangherlini. The Washington City Paper requested all DDOT rejections of shelter ads under the Freedom of Information Act. Here’s a summary of the government’s actions to preserve the dignity of public space:
Bebe June 2005
Proposed Ad: “The Bebe ad featured a woman wearing a suit,” according to a DDOT document.
DDOT Objection: “[T]he jacket of the suit was unbuttoned and the majority of her breasts were exposed.” The department offered no specific reasons why these particular breasts should be shielded from the public. If the examiner determined that implants were involved, the “deceptive, misleading, untruthful” standard might have triggered rejection.
Tangherlini Take: “I have two young girls. I can understand why a parent might think this type of ad is not something their kids should be looking at while waiting for the bus.”
Message to Ad Makers: Note the term “majority.” Once you hit the District line, do not cross the 51-percent breast-exposure threshold.
French Connection UK (FCUK)
Proposed Ad: “Four French Connection, United Kingdom ads featured a couple on the beach, walking down a city street, in a meadow, and another beach scene,” according to a DDOT document.
DDOT Objection: “The reason these ads were rejected was because of the message. The guy said something to the girl to which she replies, ‘FCUK’ (French Connection, United Kingdom). DDOT felt this acronym is used to deliberately lead one to think it is an obscene word; therefore, these ads were rejected,” the agency document says.
Level of Interest: This ad required Tangherlini to make the call. “If you look at it, the ad was intended to create intentional dyslexia, to get someone driving by to look and say, ‘My God, did they really put that word on a bus shelter,’” says Tangherlini. “If there is an issue like the F-word one—that’s one my administrator brought to me with a certain level of nervousness. I think the right answer is for [the company] to go back and try again,” he says. Tangherlini has some support on this one. UK’s ad-evaluation group the Broadcast Advertising Clearance Center rejected a FCUK television campaign for an unacceptable level of sexual innuendo.
Message to Ad Makers: Sneaky use of the F-bomb will not fly in a town notorious for acronym overload.
Proposed Ad: “Two Whitman Walker Clinic ads depicted naked men in bed, one a white couple, the other a black couple. The ads were designed to encourage people to get tested for HIV and to use condoms,” according to a DDOT document.
DDOT Objection: “DDOT rejected the ads because of nakedness,” according to a DDOT document.
Level of Interest: The DDOT response didn’t give any detail about the extent of nakedness in the proposed ads. The Mass Transit Office asked Whitman-Walker for a redesign without seeking input from Tangherlini.
Message to Ad Makers: A little skin is OK, but two naked butts equal one rejection letter.
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