Date: July 2, 2008
Byline: Phil Kadner
Is flag giveaway patriotism or self-promotion?
Around the Fourth of July for 18 years, Joe "Not your average Joe" Niego has distributed thousands of U.S. flags throughout the Garfield Ridge and Clearing communities on Chicago's Southwest Side.
The office manager of Niego Real Estate said that between 16,000 and 18,000 flags were planted this year in the lawns and parkways of homes from Central to Harlem avenues and from 51st to 65th streets.
Joe doesn't plant all the flags himself anymore, I was told.
"We have all sorts of volunteers come in and ask for the flags," said Marlene Briagado, the office manager.
"You'll see little kids pulling wagons loaded with flags down the street," added Paul Handershott, who identified himself as the co-owner of Niego Real Estate. "Senior citizens come in and ask if they can distribute the flags. Some of our staff will take a bunch of flags for their own neighborhoods. People look forward to it each year."
People write letters thanking Niego for the flags. Some folks just stop by to tell him what a wonderful thing it is for the community, Briagado said.
But not everyone sees Niego's gesture as a display of patriotic fervor and community spirit.
"It just really annoys me that he places a 4-by-6-inch business card on the sticks of each one of those flags," said Cliff Victoria, a resident who is offended by the "blatant advertising."
The business cards include a photograph of Niego, the name of his business, its address, 6625 W. Archer Ave., its phone number and the words, "Not your average Joe," beneath the name Joe.
"I'm an Army veteran, but I was in the service during the Eisenhower administration, so I didn't have to do any fighting," Victoria said. "This guy may say he's doing this out of patriotism or community spirit, but I think its obvious that he wants people to remember the name of his business when it comes time to sell their home.
"I called the U.S. Office of Protocol and asked them if this was a proper use of the American flag, and they said 'no,' but there was really no penalty for violating the regulation. I called Congressman Dan Lipinski's office and complained, and they said they would talk to Joe about it. I called a VFW post, and they said they didn't like it either, but there was nothing they could do about it.
"Maybe I sound like a kook, but this just doesn't seem right to me," Victoria said.
Niego was out selling homes when I visited his real estate office and didn't return a message I left on his answering machine.
But Handershott said people in the community "want to know where all these flags are coming from. That's why we put the cards on there."
But the U.S. Flag Code seems very specific on this point.
"The flag should never be used for advertising purposes in any manner whatsoever. ... Advertising signs should not be fastened to a staff or halyard from which the flag is flown."
Like Victoria, I called the U.S. Office of Protocol in the State Department and also was told there's probably no penalty for violating the Flag Code.
Is it good business?
Briagado showed me a stack of "thank you" letters, not only from homeowners but also from schoolchildren.
Each year, she said, Niego donates flags to Byrne Elementary School that are distributed as an award to seventh-grade students who successfully complete a U.S. Constitution test.
I didn't ask if those flags come with a business card for Niego Real Estate.
Victoria said he used to sell U.S. flags while raising funds for a suburban Lions Club and could estimate how much they cost based on his experience.
"They were 50 cents to 75 cents a flag some years back," he said. "So you're probably talking at least $1 a flag today. If he's giving away 16,000 flags, that's probably at least $16,000."
But Victoria couldn't find it in his heart to credit Niego as a philanthropist.
"He probably writes it off as an advertising expense," Victoria said.
"But I will give him credit for this much: Those flags are made in the United States," he said. "One year, the Lions Club purchased a bunch of flags made in China, and all heck broke loose."
I have to admit all those U.S. flags lining the streets of Garfield Ridge look mighty nice.
The cards promoting Niego's business weren't really noticeable unless you looked for them.
Almost all of the flags still had the cards punched through the sticks, which made me wonder just how effective they are as an advertising gimmick.
"We just had to go out and replace a bunch of flags in one neighborhood because some mischievous kids swiped the flags and left the sticks behind," Briagado said.
"The kids probably just rode by on their bikes and swiped them. But the people on that block were really upset. They wanted their flags. So we went out and replaced them."
It seems to me that at this point, Niego could get more word-of-mouth advertising by just putting the flags out in the neighborhoods without his cards.
"Who puts all these flags out?" people will say.
"Joe 'Not your average Joe' Niego," longtime residents will reply. "He doesn't want any credit for it."
I might consider throwing some business to a guy like that.
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