By Clare Kane
MADRID (Reuters) - Big business is taking advantage of recession-hit Spain's hunger for cash, striking advertising deals for landmarks that have seen a Christopher Columbus statue dressed in a Barcelona soccer shirt and a metro station named after a telecoms company.
With local councils and transport authorities across Europe feeling the squeeze as governments battle to cut deficits, these deals could be a taste of things to come.
"Advertising seeking controversy isn't anything new ... what's different here is the inventive ways local authorities are coming up with to make money," said Manuel Martin, communication theory professor at Spain's University of Navarra.
Some Conservative politicians in Britain, for example, have suggested allowing sponsorship of London Underground metro lines and stations to raise money that could keep down fares.
But allowing brands to associate themselves with public services and famous places is not without its detractors.
Protest group Ecologists In Action, for instance, says metro stations should be used to promote cultural activities and that it is unfair to advertise to consumers where they might not be able to distinguish between publicity and information.
For supporters, opening up more landmarks to advertising is a win-win situation at a time when money is tight for both governments and companies.
Spain is in the grip of a protracted recession that has left 27 percent of the workforce jobless. Many of its 17 autonomous regions and councils are shouldering large amounts of debt and most regions - though Madrid is an exception - have been locked out of debt markets and must seek alternative funding.
For them, new advertising revenues could be a big help.
Barcelona city council received 114,000 euros ($150,200) from Nike to preview soccer club Barcelona's new shirt on the 60-metre high statue of Columbus.
In the capital, Vodafone will pay subway company Metro de Madrid 3 million euros over three years to rename the station in the historic Sol plaza at kilometer 0 of Spain's road network and the focal point of anti-government protests. The Sol station is now called Vodafone-Sol.
Line 2, used by more than 122,000 people every day and which stops at Sol, will also be renamed Linea 2 Vodafone in September. It is the first time a company has sponsored an entire metro line in Europe. New maps of the metro system will be made and distributed with the new name for the line and Vodafone will foot the bill.
Metro de Madrid said the money raised would go to improve service, while the regional government described Madrid's transport network as "a shopfront for 1.5 billion journeys a year" and said such advertising campaigns could help fund public transport.
Companies are also looking to save money, and create more of a buzz when they do spend on advertising.
Consultancy Zenith says firms in Spain are expected to spend 10.9 percent less on publicity this year.
Choosing a controversial location can be money well spent.
Marta Coll, director general at Havas Media's Barcelona office, which was behind Nike's Columbus campaign, said the media coverage generated by the stunt was valued at between 7 million and 8 million euros.
Barcelona city council is currently reviewing its urban landscape regulation, making it unclear whether more such deals will be permitted. The Columbus promotion was only allowed because it was for a short period of time and the statue was being restored, according to the council.
A spokeswoman said while urban planning rules would be modernized, nothing had been officially decided on advertising.
"The idea first came up seven years ago but the council was much more restrictive and we weren't allowed to do it. Perhaps it was because of the current economic crisis and the fact restoration work was being carried out that they let us do it," said Havas Media's Coll.
Vince Mitchell, consumer marketing professor at Cass Business School in London, said companies would be keen to strike advertising deals over other landmarks.
"Virtually every other form of advertising is so saturated, so marketers are constantly looking at new ways to engage people," he said.
But opponents are vowing to put up a fight.
In Spain, a group called "Cover The Brand" has set up a website with instructions on what size of paper is needed to cover the "Vodafone" brand on metro signs and uploads pictures showing the brand papered over and covered by stickers.
In Barcelona, the council's decision to allow the Columbus statue to wear the new FC Barcelona shirt also sparked fury at other clubs in the area, such as Espanyol, whose president described the move as "the straw that broke the camel's back".
($1 = 0.7590 euros)
(Editing by Fiona Ortiz and Mark Potter)