Editorial: R.I.’s Marketing Campaign Launches, Sinks

Published: 4/5/2016 9:59:16 PM
Modified: 4/5/2016 10:00:10 PM

Despite the untold millions spent on state tourism and marketing campaigns, the mundane ones far outnumber the memorable. The latter include “Virginia Is for Lovers’’ and “I Love New York,’’ a slogan carried by a rising, catchy tune.

But Rhode Island’s new tourism campaign has failed so resoundingly that it has become the talk of the town, plus an Internet sensation. When the $5 million campaign was launched recently, state residents, as if in unison, hated it. Rhode Islanders, for the record, can be a tough audience. For decades, they have coped with high taxes, mob activity, government corruption and job flight. One of the state’s cities, Central Falls, went bankrupt in 2011. Its motto is “A City with a Bright Future.”

This has bred a potent brand of cynicism in Rhode Island; no matter how bad it gets, residents expect worse. In this, they carry a burden similar to that borne by Red Sox fans from 1918 to 2004.

The new tourism campaign stumbled right out of the chute, starting with a short video containing state scenes that included a shot of a skateboarder near a harbor. Many Rhode Islanders prefer to stay within the state’s borders, just 37 miles wide and 48 long, but some travel internationally, and among them were several who recognized that the skateboard scene was from Reykjavik, Iceland.

The campaign slogan, “Rhode Island: Cooler & Warmer,” evoked confusion about what it was trying to say. And there was more: The state tourism website promoted restaurants in Massachusetts and chefs who are deceased.

True to their reputation, Rhode Islanders did not take the debacle lying down. There followed a social media firestorm, with able designers replacing “Cooler & Warmer” with slogans such as “Potholes & Dunkin’ Donuts” (Rhode Island has plenty of both), and “Hot Weiners & Coffee Milk” (ditto.) A former investigative reporter offered “Mobsters & Lobsters.” Residents mocked the video’s geographic error with “Rhode Iceland.”

After apologies failed to stem the tide in the Ocean State — Rhody’s official nickname — Gov. Gina Raimando accepted the resignation of the state’s chief marketing officer, and tossed the tepid “Cooler & Warmer’’ slogan overboard. “We’re going to learn from these mistakes,’’ the governor said. “We’re going to fix them, and we’re going to work hard to get this right for Rhode Island because this is important. This campaign matters. It’s going to create jobs.”

Rhode Islanders will believe it when they see it. In the meantime, they can console themselves with the state’s real charms — the Gatsby-esque mansions of Newport and the state’s 384 miles of shoreline, not to mention gastronomic wonders such as clam cakes, which are to Rhode Island what baguettes are to Paris.

If nothing else, Rhode Island’s experience provides yet another example of a growing phenomenon in contemporary life: A volunteer army of social media parodists is willing and able to mock misadventures great and small. If only all that talent could be enlisted in a constructive cause — but perhaps that would take the fun out of it.

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