Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Change, Where Needed Least

The local tourism board has unveiled a new brand identity for the city in which I begrudgingly hang my hat. In my frank and honest, opinion, it is a stunningly awful, sorely misguided attempt at marketing a severely damaged city. The slogan that apparently emerged not from a journal kept by a marketing director on a bender, but from several brainstorming sessions comprised of a variety of advertising professionals was “Buffalo. For Real.”

First of all, this is a terrific example of the danger of mistaking something for simplicity when in fact it’s over-simplification. There is an absolutely unsophisticated connotation to a brand of this sort, one that could only have been bested by settling instead upon “Buffalo. For Really Reals.” The phrase “for real” is not only grammatically flawed, it conveys no information. It functions, at best, as an interjection, and in the long run, perhaps I will be one of the people to get the most mileage out of this brand, in that it will be a nice alternate for the word “fuck.”

“You live in Buffalo? That sucks.”

“For real.”

And that’s the real (for real) crux of the problem. My very first reaction to this was to observe that the people in charge of promoting Buffalo and dressing up its numerous, deep-seeded flaws had decided upon a brand identity that encourages people confronted with it to think about the things least worth emphasizing for the sake of tourism.

You know what I think of when I think of Buffalo, for real? I think of crumbling buildings scattered throughout the cityscape. I think of debilitating poverty hanging over many of its residents from cradle to grave. I think of the sixth greatest level of segregation in the United States. I think of population decline, unemployment, poor infrastructure, appallingly corrupt politicians, and vacant retail space in the city’s only commercially viable areas. I think of the death of the American city.

Somehow the video that Visit Buffalo Niagara released to coincide with this new found brand identity manages to begin by trying to speak to the exact opposite, portraying Buffalo as unique and distinctive, in contrast to the “sameness of the interstate.” It also encourages the poisonous notion that there is somehow a real America and a fake America, and that the roughshod, poorly positioned people and places are somehow more genuine than people with an urban identity or a measure of social mobility.

There’s something ironic about the fact that Buffalo tourism wants to emphasize the reality not just of this town but of an ostensibly overlooked national character, because actually acknowledging the ignored reality would entail clearly recognizing all those terrible things I mentioned above. Acknowledging the ignored reality would be in stark contrast to the broader goals and worldview of Visit Buffalo Niagara and all those who narrow their vision to focus upon the tenuous handful of nice things this place has going for it and claim therefore that Buffalo is really a great town.

“For real” doesn’t really work as a brand identity, because the impulse to attach a cheerful, positive brand to a place like this relies upon a great deal of delusion. And that sort of delusion is evident throughout the tourism video.

"Now, some might say time has left our town behind," the narrator says near the halfway point of his excruciating four minute monologue. "Prosperity has moved on, our moment passed. And no one would argue that we haven't had our share of hard knocks. Yet, despite the odds, we're still here."

Despite the odds, we're still here? Much like the slogan itself, this means nothing. Are we to believe that the odds were once in favor of the city of Buffalo being wiped completely off the map? We're still here, sure, because despite the best efforts of population trends, not everybody can leave all at once. But those of us who have both the will and the means to escape have done so, and we will continue to do so unless something fairly dramatic happens - something far more impactful than a whole lot of optimism about a new brand identity. Yes, we're still here, but what isn't here is much that makes Buffalo worth living in, or even visiting. For real.

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