If you were near City Hall on the evening of November 21, you might have noticed something unusual: a huge pair of lips and scarlet tongue emblazoned on the side of the art deco building’s 12-storey clocktower.
After the Rolling Stones announced the band would be coming to be BC Place in 2024, the exterior of City Hall was lit up with the Stones’ cheeky tongue-out logo—with ABC city councillors cheering on the whole thing.
In a noticeably high-production video posted to Mayor Ken Sim’s one-known-as-Twitter account, councillors Mike Klassen, Sarah Kirby-Yung, and Peter Meizner stood in front of City Hall in the rain, decked out in matching Stones hats, grinning for the cameras, and delivering a whole spiel about the Rolling Stones’ upcoming show on the West Coast.
“We thought about it and we were like, ‘You know what? We need to do something pretty special to welcome Mick and Keith and Ronnie and show Vancouver how much we love them,’” says Councillor Kirby-Yung in the video, moments before the band’s logo appears on the front of City Hall.
Understandably, this caused a bit of a ruckus. Had Vancouver City Hall—the municipal governing body for a place with sky-rocketing numbers of unhoused people, a toxic drug supply that kills multiple people a day, and aging infrastructure that desperately needs replacing—used taxpayer money to project some big lips onto the side of the building?
(That impression was cemented by a video that Mayor Ken Sim released a day before: replete in tongue-out cap, the mayor posted a video—filmed in his City Hall office—thanking the Stones for “being awesome” and “bringing your swagger to Vancouver,” where “the biggest Rolling Stones fans” will “lose their shit.”)
Exciting news Vancouverites! Thrilled to hear that the Rolling Stones will be taking centre stage at BC Place next year. Mark your calendars, spread the word, and get ready to rock.— Mayor Ken Sim (@KenSimCity) November 21, 2023
To Mick, Keith, and Ronnie thanks for bringing your swagger to our awesome city. pic.twitter.com/KLCVrH40c9
It seemed on-brand to assume that Sim’s ABC party had orchestrated this whole cringey fanboy thing themselves. After all, Sim is a man whose obsession with “swagger” belies the fact he was largely elected by rich homeowners who care more about law-and-order scaremongering than any kind of hipness.
But, it turns out, no taxpayer money went into the big, red-lipped projection. Laura Ballance, the president of Laura Ballance Media Group (which lists the City of Vancouver as a client), confirmed to Daily Hive that the show’s promoter paid for the entirety of the stunt.
“The lighting up of the iconic Rolling Stones ‘lips’ logo on Vancouver City Hall was paid for entirely by the promoter of the event,” Ballance said. “Additionally, a fee was paid to City Hall for the activation, and the promoter also paid 100 per cent of the insurance for the evening.”
The thing is, this is actually worse.
An unrelated outside party paid for the right to project imagery onto the physical representation of our supposedly democratic, impartial, municipal politics.
It was all just part of a marketing campaign, the same way that billboards around town (and in other cities across North America) displayed the Stones insignia before the tour dates were announced. Notably, there’s nothing to suggest other City Halls with Stones tour stops engaged in similar marketing stunts.
The City of Vancouver’s own website lists the criteria that events need to meet to use the building’s illuminations (the colourful lights that turn on for different events). The lighting display is designed for national and internally significant events; local festivals or community events; local, national, or international awareness issues; or “events or occasions that contribute to the economic, social, and cultural fabric of Vancouver.”
Requests that don’t meet those criteria, that come from organizations without a Canadian presence, or that “are mainly personal, political, religious, or commercial in nature” don’t pass muster.
That’s how you end up with colourful lights going on for other November events like Diwali, Louis Riel Day, Transgender Day of Remembrance, and, uh, Turnip The Heat — Growing Chef’s Winter Fundraising Campaign.
Of course, there’s room for argument. For instance, it would be fair to ask why Vancouver lit up blue in memorial of the 1,200 people killed by Hamas in Israel on October 7, but has yet to publicly memorialize the 20,000 people killed by the Israeli military in Gaza since—but generally the lights are not that contentious. Lighting up with rainbows for Pride or orange for National Indigenous Peoples Day is a pretty milquetoast gesture that indicates largely symbolic institutional support for different important causes.
Notably, the lights rarely involve single entities like one band, one business, or one event. So why did the Stones get special treatment?
Maybe this Stones logo event is a one-off. After all, the announcement of Taylor Swift’s four-night run at BC Place didn’t merit some kind of visual representation blasted onto the front of our seat of civic government, and it’s not like any other musician boasts that same level of economy-boosting concert tourism that she does. At the same time, Swift didn’t need the extra exposure: those shows were going to sell out without the help of real-world ads.
Really, the damage is already done. Who else may the ABC-led council choose to make deals with and collect “activation” fees from? Will other promoters see this as an opportunity to capitalize on the reach of official political Twitter accounts and copy the strategy? How many more groan-inducing, missing-the-zeitgeist videos will we be made by the man who drops trou in front of journalists and governs based on “vibes”?
Was it worth it, especially when we all know full well the Stones don’t give a rat’s arse?
We’ve learned that for the right price, City Hall’s physical canvas is up for grabs. But there’s no swagger in being for sale.