A struggling former mill town in my vicinity recently adopted the slogan “It’s Happening Here,” a statement that is open to a dangerously wide range of interpretations. What is happening here? Muggings would be bad. Impromptu free concerts at the town gazebo by the Rolling Stones would be very good.
Despite the fact that I’m sort of a propagandist by trade, I’ve never understood these municipal marketing and tourism slogans, the kind dreamed up by a consultant, approved by the city council and emblazoned on tourism websites and economic development brochures. Never once in my vacationing history have I visited a place because of its slogan. It has never been even a contributing factor.
For example, I visited San Antonio not for its slogan, which is “Deep. In the Heart,” but for Riverwalk. And mariachi. I love mariachi. I get the “deep in the heart of Texas” reference but I’m still not sure what that slogan means. The way it’s punctuated makes me think it’s an excerpt from a particularly terse autopsy report.
The city where I work recently adopted a new slogan, “Hartford Has It.” Again with the ambiguous “it.” (Dysentery = bad. Wine fountains = good.) The city, perhaps to clarify further, extended the slogan into several sub-slogans and printed them on banners that were hung about the city. They said, variously, “Hartford Has It — Fun,” “Hartford Has It — Music,” “Hartford Has It — Food” and so on.
In the streets near my office, though, all the banners said “Hartford Has It — Food.” Unaware of the big picture, ignorant of the whole family of slogans as it were, I was baffled. Had anyone suggested that Hartford did not have food? Was there a public perception that Hartford residents had been reduced to eating shoe leather, like the people of St. Petersburg during the siege?
By the way, St. Petersburg — the Russian one previously known as Leningrad — declares on its website “Everyone is talking about St. Petersburg,” which may or may not be the official slogan. But it certainly meets what I think we’ve now established as the litmus test for municipal slogans: ambiguity. What exactly is everyone saying about St. Petersburg? (“What’s that stench?” = bad. “Hurray, free beer!” = good.)
Maybe St. Petersburg should adopt Hartford’s slogan, at least the “has food” one. Just to clear up any lingering doubts.
Speaking of Russia, the city of Sochi, site of the 2014 Winter Olympics, unveiled a slogan last year: Жаркие. Зимние. Твои,” which translates to “Hot. Wintry. Yours.” Again with the ambiguity. (Rum toddy = good. Chernobyl = bad.)
But getting back to Hartford, the “has it” slogans replaced the old tag line: “New England’s Rising Star,” widely parodied after a series of violent crimes as “New England’s Shooting Star.” As slogans go this one at least had some obvious meaning. “New England’s Rising Star” suggested that things were getting better. ( “New England’s Shooting Star” suggested: until you get shot.)
But let us not dwell overmuch on Hartford, which is no stupider in this vein than any other city. Hartford does indeed have food and some of it is very good. (I particularly recommend Firebox, on Broad Street.)
Let us instead remind the cities out there that are vying for our tourism dollars that it might be better to attend to the tourism infrastructure first and the marketing second. Also, bring in some mariachi bands.