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Get your Madison jets T-shirt, for some reason

National newsletter publisher 6AM City steps in it with a baffling new merch line.
A T-shirt set against a grey-blue background. The T-shirt is white, with an American-flag-like configuration of the area code "608" in blue, and red stripes consisting of jet icons and contrails.

National newsletter publisher 6AM City steps in it with a baffling new merch line.

Going out on the town in hyperlocal style just got a little easier, provided your definition of
“local” has a wide margin of flexibility. 6AM City, publisher of 608today and 23 other email newsletters in various cities around the country, just launched a merch line called Six & Main. The web store carries a bunch of designs that are used across all the different cities, just with names/area codes/abbreviations swapped out. One design, available from Asheville to Seattle and points in between, uses cities’ names or area codes as the blue portion of an American flag, forming the stripes with bright red icons of airplanes and their contrails. Click over to your very local Madison webstore and you can spend $35 on a patriotic shirt featuring a big “608” and a bunch of jets. 

Reasonable people may ask if something is a bit off here. Might this shirt—jets over the 608, baby! Madness Town, home of Wisconsin College and The Big Milk!—be in poor taste, in a city where the presence of fighter jets is not only hugely controversial but creates significant problems for childhood development, housing policy, and water pollution? Where people have undertaken extensive grassroots efforts to oppose the further basing of F-35 jets because they’re worried about their homes and neighborhoods becoming unlivable? 

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It’s clearly an oblivious misstep on 6AM City’s part. They’re not trolling you, because 608today isn’t the kind of publication where you’d read about something like the F-35s debate and its complex implications for quality of life in Madison. 6AM City’s stated mission is to focus on positive news. No crime! (Well, OK, a lot of media outlets would do well to turn off the crime faucet.) No politics! (Oh, declaring “no politics talk” in an inherently politicized media industry always makes a lot of sense. Right.) The company’s founders have offered some disingenuous babble about how this is a good way to facilitate community discussion or something. Coincidentally, they’ve also pitched their products as “a marketing engine for the cities.” This is a recipe for spon-con slop, and a recipe for pieces that handle substantive issues awkwardly at best. Take this recent one on the Madison Metro bus system redesign. It just sums up the pitch of the city officials who supported the redesign. There were certainly good arguments for the redesign, but this piece does not acknowledge even the existence of opposing arguments, of which there were many. In this case, keeping it positive means just believing what those in power tell you, not honestly assessing the trade-offs involved. Don’t fault rank-and-file 6AM City employees trying to survive in a tough industry; keep the focus on media founders who are just too high on venture-capital-fueled expansion to get bogged down in all the negatives and mucky stuff. 

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From this vantage point of marketing engines and enforced positivity, a city is not a complex place about which to have substantive conversation. It’s a brand guide endlessly regurgitating itself into its own content orifice. It’s a feedback loop of pandering and schtick. It’s a massive contradiction—a niche that must be celebrated for what makes it special, but also must offer something for everyone. Live like a townie, live like a tourist rube, it’s all the same. That’s the only way you can interpret an Instagram account that clues you into savvy locals-only moves like buying Spotted Cow at the airport. If you are a townie you are allowed to leave and get it at a normal price! You are not Tom Hanks in The Terminal

The flag-waving nonsense apparel, with its accidentally crass references to a local controversy, is, at least, a departure from the endless onslaught of “ope!”-themed merchandise. It’s not even a crime to pander—just pander somewhat competently? The real problem here is 6AM City’s cookie-cutter, uncanny-valley, tourism-bureau-speak-rammed-through-a-buggy-AI approach to local media, and how it translates to these mystifying efforts to tap into local culture. What place does this sort of thing really represent? A strange, sanitized world where every place looks like every other place.

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