Spreading the Jersey State of Mind
New Jersey doesn't do shame. When 49 states make fun of your smell, your mafia connections, your accent, your big hair, and what exit you're from (don't other states have highways?), offense becomes your best defense. Especially when you're naturally predisposed to offend.
Owing to shows such as The Sopranos and, more recently, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Jersey Shore, Jerseylicious, Jersey Couture, and Boardwalk Empire, no other state has been branded so vulgarly—and brilliantly. The Seaside Heights Business Improvement District claims Jersey Shore directly increased 2010 daily beach revenue by 38 percent from an already record-breaking 2009. People can get sand anywhere. They'll travel to see a guy punch Snooki in the face.
The only place to have intentionally pulled a Jersey with their government-paid tourism campaign is Las Vegas. The city switched from a decade of marketing itself as a wholesome family vacation destination to acknowledging that people go there to gamble recklessly and share hotel rooms with complete strangers in its hugely successful "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" campaign. Yet with so much reality TV being made, producers are actively seeking other locales willing to put their worst foot forward in exchange for some exposure.
Rebecca Toth Diefenbach, a partner at Sirens Media and the executive producer of Bravo's The Real Housewives of New Jersey, is on the hunt for the next "It" state. "There are a lot of states—West Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama—that are fully developed cultures people don't know about and haven't experienced," she says. Alex Duda, the executive producer of the Style Network's Jerseylicious, also thinks the next hot state is hiding in the South. "It's sleepy, but there are secrets there," she says.
The search goes on at a time when many states are already trying to tap their own inner Jersey—whatever that may be—with mixed success. Alabama's current campaign, "The Year of Alabama Small Towns and Downtowns," and forthcoming one, "The Year of Alabama Music," both capitalize on one of the state's better known trademarks—hick culture. Perhaps because of this, not everyone is sure that Alabama's ready for its close-up. "I think it's a double-edged sword if a state turns control of its image over to unstructured situations," says Lee Sentell, director of the Alabama tourism department. "I've read there are six shows with New Jersey connections these days. I'm not sure what the goal is. I don't keep up with the Kardashios." After learning that the "Kardashios" are actually the "Kardashians," and that none of them have anything to do with New Jersey, Sentell was reminded of the power of the state brand: Anyone wearing that much makeup is presumed to live there.
Arkansas also has stereotype issues. "A lot of people still think that we're backwoods, and we're not," says Dena Woerner, communications director for the state's department of parks and tourism. However, its slogan, "The Natural State," makes it a common Google search for many reality TV watchers. "It causes us some trouble on search engine optimization," admits Woerner.
Other states wish they had stereotypes—or anything at all—to exploit. "When people think of New Jersey, it's going to be the shore; South Dakota, it's going to be Mount Rushmore," says Sara Otte Coleman, the director of North Dakota's tourism division. "We don't have that one thing." As a result, North Dakota is pushing other benefits—for example, it's really cheap to hang out there. "We market that," says Coleman. "When the economy hit rock bottom, people thought of us!" Though it has courted reality TV shows, North Dakota has not yet had any luck. "Last November was the 75th anniversary of the state capital. We approached Ace of Cakes and Cake Boss and tried to get them to come out and make a big huge cake. I think we would have gotten a little more traction with the pitch, but we got a late start," Coleman says. Wyoming has experienced a similar media blackout. "We proactively work to engage film and television," says Diane Shober, the director of Wyoming Travel & Tourism. "Though the need for cell service makes things a little more challenging."
Nebraska, which is kind of in the middle northern or maybe slightly western part of the country, has trouble getting people to pull over. "We hear a lot that we're a flyover state or a state people drive through," says Shannon Peterson, the media and public relations coordinator for Nebraska's division of travel and tourism. Capitalizing on the reputation of being a place people don't fly to, and having an inordinate number of straight roads, the state's slogan is "Rediscover the Road Trip." "We don't come out and say 'Come here and be bored,'" says Peterson. Well, not until now. "We do talk about how it's peaceful here. We have open prairies. It's a place where you can go reflect. We have a lot of bird watching." Nebraska might be the first state suggesting that people come and stay in their hotel rooms.
Ohio is trying to present itself as a model of work-life balance with it's New Age slogan, "The State of Perfect Balance." Although if you're LeBron James, it also might sound a bit like a brilliant way of telling people to leave their ambition behind. That's not as bad as Delaware, though. "We'd like to increase our image," says Linda Parkowski, Delaware's director of tourism. She's decided to target sports fans—a brave gambit for a state whose only professional team is a Single-A minor-league baseball club. "We don't need a professional team to create impact," Parkowski insists. "We're talking about youth soccer, anything where the parents travel. Especially girl sports." Delaware would make a nice province in Canada.
While New Jersey has made gaining exposure look easy, even states with undeniable star power are struggling. Despite allowing Sarah Palin to stump for Alaska as a moose-hunting, snowmobile-riding, teenage-pregnancy capital, the state's visitor traffic declined by more than 7 percent from summer 2008 to summer 2009, according to market research firm the McDowell Group. Maybe the TLC network's Sarah Palin's Alaska needs to cast the guy who punched Snooki to hang with her for an episode.