Friday, August 19, 2011

Apathy Is An Enabler of Desecration

If they aren’t nose-down catching up on their smartphones and iPads, some of my former colleagues in community/destination marketing (DMOs), who are fortunate enough to attend the second of two major educational events held each summer, will see two things on the way in from the airport when they gather in Salt Lake City at the end of the month for USTA’s Educational Seminar for Tourism Organizations (ESTO).

First will be a spectacular view of a stretch of the Wasatch Range, a 162-mile mountain range that runs from the Utah-Idaho border down the spine of Utah perpendicular to the short stretch from the Salt Lake Airport to the conference hotel.Capture

The second thing they will notice, especially if during their visit they have reason to be on the north-south I-15 through that city, is how incredibly scarred the view of those mountains and the skyline are by more than 200 huge back-to-back outdoor billboards crammed in the short distance from south of Ogden through the Salt Lake Valley to Provo where I attended and graduated from college.

I thought to myself as I traveled this route earlier this month on my now-concluded 6,300 mile cross-country venture that outdoor billboards have turned what was once one of the spectacular areas of the Intermountain West into one of the most severely blighted.

Fortunately, Salt Lake City leaders banned the digital versions of billboards last spring. I love the Utah-Life Elevated slogan and art work on welcome signs but to deliver on the one depicted in this blog, travelers will indeed need to be elevated above the billboards to appreciate it.

Many DMO execs attending the conference are so numb to true sense-of-place they probably won’t even notice. Those who do may at first just be grateful their destinations have been spared the blight and then it may dawn on a few that they and their primary constituents are responsible.

Yes, one of the great ironies about the million or so outdoor billboards wallpapering many parts of this country and blighting the landscape for residents and travelers alike is that far too many destination marketing executives have hypocritically desecrated the view shed in other places with billboard messages heralding how unspoiled and special their communities are.

But that isn’t the real irony. Five of the two dozen or more industries fueled most by visitor-centric economic and cultural development are the primary reasons this obsolete form of advertising is still on life-support even though far more effective, useful and less obtrusive and expensive alternatives exist.

Lodging, restaurants, retail stores, entertainment venues and gas stations, in that order, collectively make up 70% of outdoor billboard users according to an analysis in 2003 with hotels and restaurants alone driving 40% of the use.

And these are the very businesses that rely so heavily on the unique sense of place worthiness of their communities where they do business, something undermined and threatened by the blight of outdoor billboards. Whatever they believe they gain through the advertising is lost many times over by the desecration it creates.

Communities and states seeking to draw travel-related spending to their economies are at the mercy of the ignorance and apathy of both those businesses most likely to benefit and the DMO execs entrusted to protect, defend and promote them as visitor destinations.

Unfortunately, many destination marketing execs are trapped in a “circle-the-wagons” mentality (often firing inward by the way) instead of showing true leadership in their communities. They fail to realize that typically fewer than 1 in 10 consumers use the monstrosities while seven times that many are offended by them.

“At the end of the day,” stated a branding expert recently, “it is the brands themselves who end up shouldering responsibility as well as the brunt of citizen frustration…their very presence as outdoor advertising has made them scapegoats.” These brands, typically franchises, are also slowing the transition of those honorable outdoor billboard companies to less obtrusive forms.

It may stiffen the backbones of many DMO execs that as marketers they can take courage from the fact that pioneers of the “Mad Men” era such as advertising and marketing giants such as David Ogilvy and Howard Gossage long ago discouraged use of outdoor billboards and cited their detrimental effects.

I know that the job of a DMO is anything but easy and there are some execs who truly “get it”, but maybe it will take a new and more courageous generation of destination marketing leaders to finally stand up in unison against the harm being done by outdoor billboards to their cities and states.

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