Image is everything: Potter has a good piece in this week’s Pittsburgh City Paper on the region’s efforts to find a marketable image.
Marketing is our new civic religion. Just as priests once foretold the future by studying the stars or the entrails of disemboweled sheep, todayâ€™s acolytes search for patterns in focus groups and demographic research. Both faiths contend that we must appease forces beyond our control, be they gods or corporations, but promise benefits if we ritually repeat the mantras weâ€™re taught.
And, as with many religions, marketing is about fear: You may not see results, but you practice it or else.
The day before the latest announcement of the latest campaign to market Pittsburgh, we had a half-serious discussion at work on what we would do if we were charged with letting the rest of the world know that this place ain’t just smokestacks anymore. One of the things I’ve noticed about Pittsburgh since I got here is that there are few, nationally recognizable figures who you can immediately identify with the city.
For example, in Boston we have Dennis Leary, those annoying kids from Good Will Hunting, scores of music acts, noted politicians like Tip O’Neil and Uncle Ted Kennedy, as well as historical figures like Paul Revere and — mainly because of a very popular Boston lager — the Adams family. Hell, even Larry Bird, that Indiana hick, is identifiable enough with Boston to sell Boston Market food products on television.
Pittsburgh has produced its fair share of famous and influential people, but you wouldn’t know it unless you lived here. I probably new in the back of my head that Mr. Rogers was from here, but I associated him more with that friendly, make believe neighborhood. Andy Warhol? I probably thought he was from New York before I arrived in Pittsburgh and read that the city was home to the largest museum dedicated to a single artist. I was fairly certain the the hottest Pittsburgher at the time of my arrival in 1999 was from Latin America, given that corny accent Christina Aguilera puts on every time she speaks publicly. Now, thanks to our local television news stations, I know she’s not “Christina Aguilera,” but instead, “Wexford’s Own Christina Aguilera.”
So here was my idea for an ad campaign. You can love it or leave it: A series of television spots beemed to all corners of the nation. Mr. Rogers in a very hip night club. The five quarterbacks (I can’t name them, but they all went on to glory in the NFL after growing up or going to college in the region) viewing an exhibit at the Carnegie Museum of Art. Wexford’s Own Pop Diva at a Penguins game. Michael Keaton riding an incline to the surprise of commuters going home on Mount Washington. Each commercial ending with a tag line along the lines of “Pittsburgh: Expect the unexpected.”
No, it’s not going to make Pittsburgh a New York or a Chicago, or even a Phoenix. But instead of trying to sell this image of a new city, with new ballparks, new chain restaurants and new ways of reminding you of other cities you’ve already visited, sell it for what makes it unique. Sprinkle the idea of there being something for everyone. Yes, we have some very hip and urban features, but we also have cashiers and waitresses who — even though they’re several years younger than you — will call you “Hon.” Find people who are proud of their roots here.
That last part may be easier said than done. When I first got here and told people I had moved here from New York, and had grown up in Boston, the number one response was “Why?” People, unless the Steelers are doing very well, tend to not be too proud of their Pittsburgh roots. Granted, there are some things to be embarassed about, but then every city has them (a lot of people in Boston find that “endearing” Good Will Hunting accent ignorant, just like many Pittsburghers cringe at the word “Yinz”).
It is still my contention that the region is fucked beyond belief — a political machine that has just about run itself into the ground (i.e. bankruuptcy), a decline in population that won’t stop and a desire to try mimicing other places to develop industry instead of looking at what the region’s own, natural assets are. That doesn’t mean I want to see it fail, and it doesn’t mean that I haven’t found things, people and places here that make me incredibly happy. I guess my point is that if you’re going to try to market an image, please make it original and offer it with the least amount of embarassment to the people who have had to sit through so many failed attempts to market the city already.