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Meet Me in St. Louis, Not Milwaukee: How Not to Oversell Your Urban Tourism Campaign

(UPDATE 7/29/10: The IP address of the scathing “Dave” comment below seems to belong to a PR firm employed by none other than…Visit Milwaukee. Yes, really. Click through for more.)

Recently, two other fine Midwestern cities, St. Louis, MO, and Milwaukee, WI, launched tourism campaigns aimed at attracting Chicago visitors. Raging urbanist that I am, I love spending time in nearby metropoli, and have a particular fondness for our sister city to the north. It’s the Windy City’s smaller, quieter, less-flashy Lake Michigan alternative–and that’s why Milwaukee’s current tourism campaign has me wondering whether the city’s overselling itself in a potentially damaging way.

This summer, the Brew City’s ads are posted on Chicago ‘L’ trains and buses with powerful headlines claiming things like, “If I had a week, I’d spend it in Milwaukee.” Follow up those ads with a browse of the VisitMilwaukee website and you get more hubris-induced marketing messages claiming the city sits “At the Intersection of Water and Fun“–not to mention celebration, success, and value, too.

Considering that most Chicagoans have likely been to Milwaukee before–and, not for nothing, live in Chicago, already–you have to wonder why Milwaukee’s tourism board would think the ads would be effective here. I mean, I enjoy Bayview restaurants, the Art Museum, and the Domes as much as the next Windy Citizen. Send me to State Fair or Summerfest for a weekend and I’m all set.

But a week? Really? I have never met a Chicagoan willing to spend a week of valuable vacation time in Milwaukee and I probably never will. When we have that much time to get away, we tend to head for O’Hare and Midway airports to really get away–usually from the Midwest entirely, much less from just the Lake Michigan shoreline.

And call me a stuck-up Chicagoan, but those “At the Intersection of Water and…” tourism messages sure sound a lot like Chicago, to me. (Well, except maybe “value.”) Reading them on the VisitMilwaukee website, I couldn’t help thinking how generic and misplaced they were.

Urbanophile blogger Aaron Renn said it best last year in his criticism of small-city marketing, Our Product Is Better Than Our Brand:

“The Midwest suffers from a failure of ambition. I’m not talking about booster club society cheers about how great we are. I’m talking about ambition properly so-called. About understanding who you are, what your values are, where you stand, and where you want to be. The fundamental problem with modest ambitions, as I said, is that they have no power to inspire.”

VisitMilwaukee sure doesn’t sound like it knows who Milwaukee is, what its values are, or where it wants to be. You can’t tell potential visitors–especially potential visitors from a world city like Chicago–that your town’s worth a week of their time, and then support your grandiose claim with a series of generic marketing messages that could have just as easily been written about any other Great Lakes city. If there’s anything unique or special communicated about Milwaukee in these tourism ads, I don’t see it. And as a result, even as someone who likes the place, they don’t particularly make we want to visit it.


I am dying to visit St. Louis, however. Unlike Milwaukee, I’ve never been there, but I’ve been curious about the city since moving to Chicago in 2003. I always say I want to visit, I just never seem to get around to it. Imagine my surprise to discover that hiding behind the KidnappedChicagoan ads festooning CTA transit vehicles (and at least at the moment, positively peppering the Adams/Wabash ‘L’ station) was a cleverly covert tourism campaign for St. Louis.

You don’t know that when you see the ads. They don’t tell you anything except that an average Chicagoan has been stolen away to an interesting place–that it’s not far away, he’s not angry at being kidnapped there, and you’d want to be him if only you could figure out where he’s been taken. Holy Interactive Interest Raiser, Batman!

Every time I saw these ads I thought, “Dammit, I keep meaning to go to that website!” When I finally did, I was greeted by a curiously familiar map with clickable push pins, and an invitation to click through to try and figure out my kidnapped compatriot’s current location. Mousing over each push-pin opened a photo and capsule summary about an interesting tourist destination–a museum, or historic site. Or an arch, for that matter.

I chuckled when I saw the message that sat below the map:

“Okay, so you’ve figured out which city—St. Louis. Der. But admit it. You were a little surprised by all the stuff there is to do in the Gateway City.”

You know what? I was. And without the help of an overblown, generically empty ad campaign, either. Unlike Milwaukee’s currently hard-to-believe tourism claims, the soft-shoed Explore St. Louis approach sends potential visitors on an Internet adventure to learn the city’s glories for themselves. Did I mention the Foursquare badges for checking in at locations he’s visited? (Earlier this week I sang the praises of Chicago’s own Foursquare-based tourism campaign.)

By mischievously whetting their whistle for adventure and then letting them learn about the city from their own task-oriented click-throughs, Explore St. Louis’s Kidnapped Chicagoan campaign gets potential visitors to arrive at the conclusion that the city is an interesting place on their own. (While I’m at it, feel free to check out the ongoing CityToRiver campaign to rebuild the urban fabric of the St. Louis waterfront.)

And in my book, letting the wonders of your city speak for themselves beats unstrategically overselling it any day.


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Categories: Branding & Marketing Urbanism

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Mike Doyle

I’m an #OpenlyAutistic gay, Hispanic, urbanist, Disney World fan, New York native, politically independent, Jewish blogger in Chicago. I believe in social justice, big cities, and public transit. I write words and raise money for nonprofits. I’ve written this blog since 2005. And counting...

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16 replies

  1. If Dave wanted to protect his employer, his client, and himself, he would have made this comment from someplace OTHER THAN HIS WORK COMPUTER. Duh. One would think that a “social media evangelist” would have a pretty good understanding of how the Internet works, and that things can be tracked very easily back to IP addresses.

    Do we know if Dave got fired? Probably not. However, if you find a website called, one can only assume who is behind it. If you can’t find the IP address, just look for the telltale terrible writing. We’ll know it’s good ol’ Dave.

    I can only assume that this “Sonja” is Dave’s girlfriend. Find her as a guest contributor on the new blog.

    And as someone in the PR industry myself, I made sure to post this comment from my PERSONAL computer, because guess what… “You’re Never ‘Anonymous’ on the Internet.” I think many people need to learn this lesson.

  2. I posting this same comment again because I really think what you did was wrong. I still can’t believe you “tracked … down via his ip address” someone that insulted you on the internet. Maybe if Dave let on that he had kidnap victims in his basement, or had threatened you with bodily harm, or threatened to harm himself, then tracking down his true identity would have been correct. It’s not just that you tracked him down to return the insult! You tracked him down and proceeded to take actions that may cause him to lose his job! And you don’t feel bad about it, you’re proud of it.

    Here’s the repost:

    Jeez Mike, you’re a snitch.

    As annoying as bad arguers are, the best way to deal with them is to ignore them. Sometimes people that are vitriolic also happen to have good points. It is up to readers to decide whether they want to wade through the rhetoric to find the good points. Most people don’t feel like it, so they skip over the comment. Some people enjoy it. Either way, you are under no obligation to respond to posts you find insulting.

    Dave didn’t really do anything wrong, except maybe waste company time. If he had written that comment and signed it as an employee of Noise Inc, then that would have been a mistake. But he didn’t. The only way anybody knew he was a noise inc employee was through snooping. Dave signed his name, he didn’t sign his company name. He did that on purpose. We should be allowed to hang out on the internet and talk sh-t under our own names if we want to.

    You might have got this guy fired. All because he insulted you.

    1. Yes, I am a snitch. I believe in fairness, not protecting someone else’s stupidity. (And by the way, one comment is fine. Unlike Dave you needn’t troll my blog as you did today to leave this comment in multiple places.)

      What Dave did is unethical by the standards of the PR industry, of which I am a part. I contacted NOISE Inc. because I don’t appreciate other PR professionals deciding they can play by their own rules instead of industry best practices. To do what Dave did is not only unfair within the industry, it’s also misleading to other commenters and a potential conflict of interest.

      Furthermore, if you think looking up someone’s IP address is snooping, then if I were you I’d be more careful than you likely are with your own tracks on the Internet. Where on my blog do I give anyone an expectation that anonymous comments are allowed? When I ask for an email address to sign in? When I offer people to sign in with Twitter or Facebook? If anyone thinks anyone’s anonymous on the Internet, they should probably Google themselves first. By the way, best of luck at Washington University-St. Louis. Get my point yet?

      Dave’s entitled to his opinion, just like you and me. But if you do something as stupid as to misrepresent yourself regarding one of your employer’s biggest clients and get caught doing it, it’s your own fault and you have no one to blame but yourself. If Dave gets fired (and I doubt he will), I won’t lose any sleep over it, I assure you.

      Free to talk shit on the Internet, as you put it. But not on my blog.

  3. I’m even prouder to note this post today appears as a guest post on national urban-affairs blog, Urbanophile, published by Aaron Renn (@urbanophile.) Find it and the blog here.

    1. Obviously being a “Raging Urbanist” has nothing to do with any sense of journalistic integrity or even an adequate ability to form paragraphs. Mike, I suppose I can get past the fact that you’re a terrible writer, but if you’re going to critique something, you should probably be able to at least quote it correctly.

      “…headlines claiming things like, ‘If I had a week, I’d spend it in Milwaukee.'”

      What the board actually reads is “If Ferris had the whole week off, he’d come to Milwaukee”. This is obviously a playful reference to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off which took place in Chicago. I’m not sure how to explain your ability to turn that into “If I had a week, I’d spend it in Milwaukee.” other than you being a horribly sub-par blogger that lacks even the simplest cognitive abilities who enjoys the act of spewing ignorant critiques of an industry that you have nothing to do with nor any valid opinions to contribute to.

      Not only did you regurgitate a horribly inaccurate misquote, but you wasted everyone’s time spending the next 4 paragraphs focusing on how absurd it is to expect Chicagoans to spend an entire week in Milwaukee. If you took two minutes to correctly read the board that you saw and look into other additions to this campaign, you’d notice that everything is light hearted with a hint of playful city rivalry.

      Here’s your next bit of genius:
      ” I mean, I enjoy Bayview restaurants, the Art Museum, and the Domes as much as the next Windy Citizen. Send me to State Fair or Summerfest for a weekend and I’m all set.”

      Guess what, Columbo? The whole campaign is focused on Milwaukee’s highlights while having weekly updated copy that focuses on Milwaukee’s ever changing festival schedule. This campaign is accompanied by a comprehensive and city wide text-to-win and festival info program (with rail cards in every major bus line and “L” train route) that gives away weekly festival tickets and free weekend hotel stays at various Milwaukee locations.

      Here’s your last bit of wonderment from today:
      “I’m even prouder to note this post today appears as a guest post on national urban-affairs blog, Urbanophile, published by Aaron Renn”

      Proud? Are you kidding me? You should be embarrassed from your unbelievable ineptitude as a writer. This brings me to Mr. Renn. I assuming this “review” came across your desk via Google Alerts because this literary wizard quoted you in his article. You saw your name, mention of a few cities and then slapped it up on this embarrassing conveyor belt of urban related entries. If you are the “opinion-leading urban analyst, consultant, speaker, and writer on a mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century” that you claim to be, perhaps you should fact check the worthless ramblings that you repost that hold the potential of damaging a city’s tourism industry before you post them. Both of you should take a second to think about the ramifications of this kind of garbage reporting and reviewing. Thanks for contributing nothing but pitiful ignorance and damaging, moronic ramblings during a time of economic despair. You’re doing a bang up job of accomplishing your “mission to help America’s cities thrive and find sustainable success in the 21st century”.


      1. Thanks for your comment, Dave. Actually, I think you’re wrong. The Milwaukee campaign is heavy handed and overblown. And if there’s an ounce of humor in it anywhere, then Milwaukeeans must have really poor senses of humor. Which they don’t, so all I can figure is someone in the local tourist office actually believes what this campaign is all about. I don’t.

        By the way, I’m an excellent writer. 🙂

      2. Dave, I understand that sometimes the froth of spittle can obscure the characters on the keyboard, but: when you criticise someone’s writing it is particularly important that said critique not contain a whole bunch of terrible writing. Then irony creeps into the equation and you could inadvertently become a laughingstock.

        1. Jay, he actually did. As per the update link posted atop this entry, I tracked Dave down via his IP address to the PR firm where he works–the PR firm with the web account for Visit Milwaukee. And as you might imagine, his employer wasn’t pleased with his anonymous attack commenting in a discussion of the firm’s own work. See here.

  4. Today I’m proud to note this post was quoted in the St. Louis Business Journal regarding the fabulous Kidnapped Chicagoan tourism campaign. Find that article here.

  5. Thanks, Court. I’ve always wanted to explore St. Louis via MetroLink, actually. Also, Lincoln Square is a neighborhood I’m considering to live in. Can’t imagine being car-challenged there, though, with two 24 hours bus routes (E/W and N/S) and almost 22-hour ‘L’ service. But I’ve never driven so it’s a bit like saying you miss a limb you never had.

    I’d also like to note for readers another tepid Midwestern tourism campaign: Indianapolis’ Raising the Game campaign. Yes, I get the city is about sports and car races. And you know what this tagline tells me? That’s all it’s about. Even worse, on the website there’s a quote about Indy’s downtown being the “most walkable downtown in America”…from a Sports Illustrated writer. First of all, it obviously isn’t. Just plain isn’t. It’s a laughable contention. End of story.

    And second, when a tourism office thinks using Sports Illustrated to vouch for a city’s urbanism makes any sense at all, they’re woefully misguided. If they’re reaching out to sports fans–those fans don’t care about your walkability. They’re coming for the game or the race anyway. And anyone thinking of coming for your alleged walkability will read that quote from SI and immediately think, “WTF?” Ho hum. Even Milwaukee has better marketing than this…

    1. Did you ever make a decision on Lincoln Square? I really enjoyed living there, especially with the great range of grocery stores and eateries…in 2003 there were Latino grocery stores, great Thai places, German delis, 24-hour Korean places, and not too far from Devon Avenue. The downside was lengthened transit rides to work downtown, or friends in Wicker Park, Ukrainian Village. But we paid so much less in rent than our friends who lived in the hipper areas of town.

      BTW, I’m heading to Chicago via Amtrak in a couple of weeks. Haven’t been in 3 years. Anything fun to recommend? Will be staying in Logan Square, but I can get around on transit/bike.

      1. I’m actually thinking of going back to Marina City if I can afford it. I miss living on State Street, even if those buildings are kind of notorious. But Lincoln Square is my Plan B. On your trip, I wouldn’t miss Millennium Park, anything at the Art Institute, and maybe the new transparent Skydeck at the Sears Tower. Next weekend the AIr & Water Show is going on, though it sounds like you may just miss it. Ahem–NO Navy Pier 😉

  6. I’m a big fan of the Kidnapped Chicagoan campaign too – and I live in St. Louis. Found out about the campaign through word of mouth vs. a flashy St. Louis unveiling, and its great to hear that ads are up in CTA trains and platforms. I like it encourages local pride as well, without being too bombastic, like we’re just a pretty cool bro hanging out down state from Chicago.

    If you ever need any info on getting around in St. Louis san car if you want to come visit, let me know. I’m a carless St. Louisan, and despite some of its obvious challenges (was a challenge even in Chicago – I lived near the Western Brown Line stop), but generally I love it, and can transit and bike all over the city. Shortly I’m walking my dog over to a neighborhood blues and cajun deli joint for New Belgium beer tasting and live music, then tonight all-you-can-eat crawfish boil and 4 rockabilly/bluegrass/country folk bands for $10. Won’t need a car at all. Great blog, keep it up! And thanks for the City to River mention as well.

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