The Times Square street vendors who alerted the police to a smoking Nissan Pathfinder on May 1 seemed to be acting on a combination of their streetwise instincts, their sense of civic duty, their military training and the advice of Allen Kay.
They did not know Kay personally. But they were familiar with his work. As chairman and chief executive of the Manhattan advertising agency Korey Kay & Partners, Kay has written about half of more than 80 slogans that the company has created since its founding in 1982.
The vendors who noticed the smoking Pathfinder had one of his in mind: “If You See Something, Say Something.” The phrase was coined by Kay for the Metropolitan
Transportation Authority, one of his company’s clients. The day after September 11, 2001, Kay sat in his office on Fifth Avenue and wrote the slogan on one of the 3-by-5-inch index cards he carries around to jot down ideas.
The company had already done advertising work for the authority, but Kay created “If You See Something, Say Something” before transit officials even asked.
He said he wanted to help prevent another disaster and to do something positive in the aftermath of the attacks. “The model that I had in my head was ‘Loose Lips Sink Ships,’ ” Kay said. “I wasn’t born during World War II, but I sure knew the phrase and so did everybody else.”
“In this case,” he added, “I thought it was ironic because we want just the opposite. We want people to talk. I wanted to come up with something that would carry like that. That would be infectious.”
In 2002, the transportation agency saw a need for a security-awareness campaign to encourage customers to report suspicious activity or unattended packages, and they turned to Kay, who still had the phrase on his index card. By January 2003, the slogan was on posters and placards in subway cars, buses and trains.
It has since become a global phenomenon — the homeland security equivalent of the “Just Do It” Nike advertisement — and has appeared in public transportation systems in Oregon, Texas, Florida, Australia and Canada, among others.
Locally, the phrase captured, with six simple words and one comma, the security consciousness and dread of the times, the “I Love NY” of post-9/11 New York City.