LINCOLN — If you gauge success by media attention, Nebraska’s frank, in-your-face new tourism slogan — “Honestly, it’s not for everyone” — is already a big hit.
And the first ads, all designed for out-of-state markets, won’t run for weeks.
The Washington Post, Kansas City Star, New York Daily News, NPR and Ad Week were among the national and regional media chiming in Thursday on the state’s self-deprecating tourism ad pitch, which admits that while Nebraska might be flat and dusty, there are some beautiful exceptions to those stereotypes worth exploring.
As of 4 p.m. on Thursday, state tourism officials estimated that the stories generated $3.5 million in free publicity, reaching a potential audience of 384 million people.
“I’m getting emails from California, Florida, New Mexico and the East Coast that this is smart ... makes sense,” State Tourism Director John Ricks said. “We knew this might push some people out of their comfort zone, and it has. But the out-of-state response, not only by media, is that they get it.”
Social media was abuzz with comments about the new ad campaign, ranging from “bold,” “edgy” and “fun” to sarcastic suggestions of alternatives, such as “Nebraska: Keep Driving!” and “Nebraska: Not quite as boring as you think.”
Ricks said more than half of the social media response has been positive, and the response from outside Nebraska, where the ads will eventually run beginning next year, was even more glowing.
But, like past tourism pitches in the state, public and professional opinion was divided.
One marketing professional said that while he agreed that the state needed to get “disruptive” in its tourism pitch because of the lack of national interest in visiting Nebraska, he was withholding judgment.
“From the standpoint of generating interest and awareness, it’s doing its job. Whether it will bring tourists to the state, it remains to be seen,” said Brian Boesche, chief creative officer with Lincoln-based Swanson Russell.
Micah Yost, who owns Method Mark, an Omaha marketing and branding firm, said he doesn’t like how the campaign emphasizes the negatives of the state — “that it’s not for everybody” — while not well defining whom it is for.
“Nebraska is a great state and has a lot of amazing things to offer. We should just lead with ‘we’re a great state,’ ” Yost said.
The state’s new tourism campaign was unveiled Wednesday during the State Tourism Commission’s annual convention.
The state’s tourism tag lines have been controversial in the past. “Nebraska Nice,” which debuted in 2014, generated chatter but also chuckles. It was quietly retired two years later to be replaced by the “Through my eyes” campaign. Does anyone remember that one, or the one that preceded Nebraska Nice — “Nebraska: possibilities ... endless”?
Ricks, who came from Colorado to take over as the state’s tourism pitchman in 2016, said the campaign needed to offer something unique and attention-grabbing because Nebraska, since 2013, has ranked as the state “least likely” to be visited by tourists. That’s according to the annual “Portrait of American Travelers” survey by the national marketing firm MMGY Global.
“We’re not on people’s shopping lists,” Ricks said. “That’s why we needed to find another way.”
To illustrate, Ricks showed a slide of a Finnish tourism billboard at the tourism convention: “Nobody in their right mind would come to Helsinki in November except you, you badass. Welcome.” The audience of more than 100 laughed.
Nebraska’s campaign takes a similar approach, dangling a perception then offering a rebuttal. Like one billboard that reads “There’s nothing to do on the dusty plains.” The photograph on the billboard shows hikers skipping across a scenic waterfall.
“It’s a really effective way to grab people’s attention,” said Aditya Gupta, a doctoral candidate in experiential marketing at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “You’re competing against so many other states that have a distinct way of attracting people. This is way to break through that clutter.”
But the critics said it only reinforced the idea that Nebraska is an endless expanse of cornfields.
“I think that just scares people off. I don’t think it’s going to bring people in,” said Terry Binder of Omaha, a retired store clerk who had chimed in on Facebook. He suggested alternatives, like “Nebraska: Nothing to see here.”
Binder, a former resident of Colorado, said his initial impression of the state was that it was “a long trip across Interstate 80.” But after living in Scottsbluff and Omaha the past dozen years, he’s grown to appreciate the beauty of the Pine Ridge area and the scenic bluffs of the Panhandle.
“They need to concentrate on the natural beauty of those areas, and the small-town kindness,” he said.
Ricks said the state hopes to invest up to $2 million on media buys initially as part of the “it’s not for every one” campaign, which cost an estimated $450,000 to develop over a year and half of research, surveys and focus groups. He emphasized that raising awareness of Nebraska’s tourism potential will take time.
The initial targets most likely will be Wichita, Topeka, Kansas City, Des Moines, Denver, Sioux Falls and, Ricks hopes, Minneapolis.
Ricks said the campaign doesn’t focus on Omaha’s top tourism draws, like the Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium and College World Series, because they are already doing well, and because regional focus groups were well aware of those attractions and appreciated learning about others.
The campaign is being implemented by the Denver-based ad firm of Vladimir Jones, which won the state tourism marketing bid in 2016. The firm projected that its services, including media buys, would cost upwards of $23 million over five years, if its contract was extended beyond the initial two years.
Yost and others on social media criticized the use of the Colorado company to create a Nebraska tourism pitch, but Ricks said the Tourism Commission was looking for the best firm, and Vladimir Jones won over a dozen others.
Jeremy Lipschultz, a social media professor at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, said that his initial grade for the new tourism tag line would be only a C and that he would be more likely to support a slogan that emphasized that Nebraska “was for everyone.”
Lipschultz said that Nebraska was “a blank slate” to him before moving here 29 years ago but that he’s grown to appreciate the events and the rural-urban diversity of the state. A campaign should build on that, not amplify negative perceptions, he said.
“The reality is, we have a lot going on that’s exciting,” Lipschultz said.