The big baked bean?

In a recent New York Times column, novelist Anne Bernays takes Boston to task for its brighter-than-thou new public relations slogan. Her witty attack wouldn't ordinarily cause much of a ripple. But Ms. Bernays is, after all, (1) a patriotic Bostonian and (2) the daughter of the generally recognized founder of the public relations industry.

Also (3), she is dead right. Who from Peoria or Petaluma wants to visit a city that proclaims itself ''Boston - Bright From the Start.'' Even the gentlest of tourists is apt to send Beantown packing to the nearest chapter meeting of Mensa (the fraternity of high-IQers). Stammered explanations that ''bright'' in the slogan means only ''luminous'' are not likely to win the hearts and minds of Peorians.

Somehow it has always seemed all right for Bostonians to proclaim their city The Hub of the Universe or The Athens of America. There is a wonderful touch of Chamber of Commerce bravado (modulated by Brahmin selectivity) in each of those 19th-century labels. There is also a tinge of knowing self-satire in each. Any follower of the Red Sox baseball soap opera will recognize that strain of half-mocking boosterism.

The bumper-sticker brashness of ''Don't Blame Me - I'm From Massachusetts'' after the 1972 election also had about it the kind of self-acknowledged quirkiness about which the 49 Nixon-voting states need not have taken much offense. But ''Bright From the Start'' would probably chagrin even Sam Adams and Paul Revere.

It's hard to determine just why American cities feel the need for slogans. But feel the need they do.

You've no doubt noticed that there are also other gaps in the metropolitan baby teeth to which the civic tongue keeps returning. For instance, Chicago commissioned a mammoth, well-publicized search for a city anthem - and now Cincinnati wants one. The home of the Reds and the Bengals is either going to have to settle for using its nickname (how about ''We're not Chintzy in Cincy''?) or find a New York-like slogan around which to weave lyrics (maybe The Big Blintz?).

There are sports fans in America who hardly know the names of cities anymore. On a trip, their geography takes them from the Supersonics to the Trail Blazers to the Oilers (Houston or Edmonton - who knows?) to the Pistons, Buccaneers, Jets, Nets, Mets, and ultimately the Saints.

Those fans know the Twins but can hardly recollect the Twin Cities. Nor would they know such old nicknames as The Windy City, Philly, KC, The Mile High City, Baghdad on the Hudson, or Baghdad on the Bay.

Neither would the new breed of traveler, who is apt to tell you he's going to vacation in The Big Avocado (San Diego) with a side trip to The Big Enchilada (Tijuana) before driving north to The Big Abalone (San Francisco) and then heading east to The Big Tamale (San Antonio), Big D (Dallas), The Big Blast (Gary or Pittsburgh), The Big Budget (where else?), and The Big Condo (Miami). Presumably, Miami's Gulf Coast neighbor, St. Petersburg, although named for the old Russian city, would not like being called The Big Balalaika. But The Big Grapefruit doesn't sound quite right, either.

Well, if you haven't already dropped off to sleep, here's a challenge to all you readers who have stuck with this silly game: Create a nickname, slogan, or song title for Peoria.

And remember, it must play to the Anne Bernayses in Peoria.

Meanwhile, Anne, what about ''The Big Crabapple'' for Boston? It's properly self-deprecating. It suggests a tartness, compactness, and character that can't be tasted in the oversized McIntosh bobbing in the Hudson. And it would certainly be catchier than calling San Jose The Big Apple IIe.

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