Paging Don Draper: Tourism Ads Flummox U.S. States

The Nebraska Tourism Commission paid for months of research. More than 3,500 corporate leaders, potential visitors and residents were interviewed. Today, the marketing campaign debuts: “Visit Nebraska. Visit Nice.”

Turns out that Nebraskans have a critical streak.

“It sounds boring,” said Andrew Norman, executive director of Hear Nebraska, an Omaha nonprofit he founded with his wife to change perceptions of the state as a slow and hokey bastion of corn and beef. “There is a hell of a lot more going on here than that.”

U.S. states hunting for the next “Virginia is for Lovers” or “Don’t Mess With Texas” budgeted more than $350 million in fiscal 2012-13 for advertising and promotion, according to the U.S. Travel Association. Yet without “Mad Men”-level talent and adequate resources or research, the money can go for naught, creating ads that fall flat or, worse, provide an occasion for mockery.

Washington pulled the plug on “SayWa” after only six months in 2006 when critics found it baffling. After more than two decades of “Georgia On My Mind,” the Peach State tried “Put Your Dreams in Motion.” That one died amid comparisons to Coca-Cola Co.’s catastrophic change to its signature soft drink’s formula in 1985. Alaska used “B4UDIE” for a month in 2005. The ads looked like vanity license plates, but conjured a frigid demise straight out of Jack London.

Neat Trick

“It’s pretty hard to create bad tourism advertising, because everybody likes to dream about vacations,” said Michael Erdman of Longwoods International in Toronto, a research firm that surveys travelers and works with about a third of U.S. states.

And yet.

For every successful tourism slogan, perhaps 20 fail, said Barbara Lippert, a columnist for and former Adweek critic. It’s difficult to sum up a state in a few words and please everyone.

Many campaigns “are corny and backward,” Lippert said. “They just sort of go to that place where all bad ads end up, which is completely forgettable.”

All that blandness is directed at a rich prize. Nationwide, tourism generated $887.9 billion in direct spending last year and $133.9 billion in revenue for governments, the U.S. Travel Association said. In Nebraska, it’s the third-largest income generator, bringing in $3.1 billion in 2012, according to a state-commissioned study last year.

Dream Episode

“Visit Nice” has a dual meaning, said Angela White, a spokeswoman for the Nebraska Tourism Commission. It combines how people feel about the state with individual experiences at events such as the College World Series and Sandhill crane migration. Still, lacking snow-capped peaks or sugar-white beaches, Nebraska has to try harder, White said.

Tourism budgets in 2012 in neighboring Colorado, Wyoming and South Dakota were all more than double Nebraska’s $5.2 million, according to the Travel Association.

“We have to find ways to be creative,” White said. The campaign starts today and will target Colorado, Kansas, Iowa, North Dakota and South Dakota and will include television and billboards, she said.

A television ad features images of a starry sky, a woman following children through an orchard and people gazing at artwork as a woman says: “There is still a place big enough for courtesy and kindness to stretch out and feel at home. A place best described in a simple word wrapped in humility and hospitality: It’s nice.”

Sterner Stuff

Reaction has fallen short of delighted. Scores of comments on social media and on the Omaha World-Herald’s website suggested the state missed the mark.

“Grandmas are ‘Nice,’ a soft blanket is ’Nice,’” wrote Andrea L. Norris on Facebook. “That’s not the word I would use to describe Nebraska.”

Norris wrote on the page of “Nebraskans for Keeping ‘The Good Life’ Slogan.” That motto appears on highway signs and was never the state’s official brand, White said.

Some campaigns are so successful they go international, such as “Virginia Is for Lovers” in the late 1960s. Another was the “I (Heart) NY” campaign in the 1970s with its bright red graphic.

Marketing professionals point to “Pure Michigan” as a success. Started in 2006, it features radio and television ads with actor Tim Allen and materials with the tagline, “Your trip begins at”

The $13 million the state spent on out-of-state advertising last year generated $1.2 billion in visitor spending and $86.6 million in state taxes, according to Longwoods International.

Holdover Heart

Other campaigns haven’t gone so well. Alabama has had a law since 1951 advocated by the state Chamber of Commerce requiring that a heart and “Heart of Dixie” appear on license plates. The phrase was a prominent banner on the plates for decades even as it became linked with resistance to civil rights. Now, the heart and slogan have shrunk to a 1.5 centimeter blip on a rock at a corner of the plate.

In August, Colorado introduced an $800,000 rebranding ordered by Governor John Hickenlooper, a Democrat running for re-election. The result was a green triangle imprinted with “CO” and the slogan “It’s our nature.”

Hickenlooper said on January 9 that the logo “is almost universally loved.” It wasn’t.

“What we got looks exactly like a hazmat logo -- a triangle with a ‘CO’ in the triangle, which to chemists stands for carbon monoxide,” said Darrin Duber-Smith, a marketing professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver.

Craving Adventure

Like Nebraska’s “Nice,” the new “Honest-to-Goodness Indiana” drew catcalls on social media when it was rolled out in February. The state is confident the slogan will work, and it’s only one element of a $1 million campaign, said Jake Oakman, spokesman for the state’s Office of Tourism Development.

“Everyone’s got an opinion,” Oakman said. “We’re not detracted by a vocal minority.”

Even so, the slogan fails to convey excitement, said David Klenosky, a professor at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, who has studied state marketing efforts. He predicted it will “die a quick death.”

Nebraska also has a challenge, he said. “Nice” is generic, he said.

“Nice is OK,” Klenosky said. “It’s like dating a nice girl. Maybe you don’t want that all the time.”

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