Connecticut has just unveiled a new $27 million campaign to attract tourists to the Nutmeg State, complete with a stirring video, which seems to be channeling Cold Play. The official slogan of the campaign – devised by a New York City advertising agency – is “Connecticut, Still Revolutionary.” This may puzzle many Americans, who are more likely to associate the 1776 Revolution with Massachusetts, which is where it all began.
Connecticut does of course have its own revolutionary heroes, most notably Nathan Hale, a spy who was caught and hung by the British in 1776 at the age of 21, and whose last words were “I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country.”
Perhaps, what the campaign has in mind by “revolutionary” is not so much men in tricorn hats, as subsequent revolutionary thinkers and innovators who resided in the state, such as Mark Twain, Samuel Colt and Igor Sikorski (the inventor of the helicopter).
Connecticut tourism director Randy Fiveash explained that as a result of focus groups held in Philadelphia, New Jersey, Boston and Austin, “We found that Connecticut was not on people’s radar. We needed a rallying cry, a vocabulary.” It is now routine for states to launch public relations campaigns to attract tourism, a major source of jobs and tax dollars (“destination branding”). More broadly, states compete to attract investors who will bring manufacturing and research jobs.
The trail-blazer was the “Virginia is for Lovers” campaign, launched in 1969, whose success spawned the “I love New York” logo a decade later. Kentucky invokes “Unbridled spirit;” while Colorado has a “Come to Life” motto, next door to “New Mexico True.” The latter may allude to the fact that some Americans think New Mexico is still part of Mexico – the state’s tourism monthly has a column where their readers can report such incidents. A $28 million “Pure Michigan” campaign reportedly produced a three-to-one return on dollars invested in increased tourism visits. Here is one of the award-winning Michigan ads, and here a parody.
These modern campaigns have their precursor in the state of Vermont, which back in the 1930s tried to revive a stagnant economy by wooing weekenders from New York City with pictures of a bucolic idyll. In Vermont this also involved branding and marketing the state’s dairy produce. For an update on the Vermont brand, see this 2003 report. In recent years the rise of ‘locavores’ advocating locally-grown or raised food has led to a revival of state-branding of food products. Food and tourism can be combined, as in the sinister-sounding “100 Dishes to eat in Alabama before you die” campaign.
The persistence of strong state identities in the US is something that often surprises foreigners, who see the US as a powerful, unitary state with a strong and unambiguous political and cultural identity. They are puzzled to see identities emerge in mid-western states such as Iowa, which were just squares on a map draw in the 19th century. (Sorry, Iowa!) This seems to be vivid evidence for Benedict Anderson’s notion of the nation – or in this case, the state – as an “Imagined community.”
But it is important to remember that the 13 colonies had already developed strong and distinct identities before they pooled their sovereignty in forming these United States. In the bloody civil war waged just 150 years ago to preserve that union, men fought and died in units that were recruited from the respective states. (See Matthew Warshauer’s excellent new book, Connecticut in the American Civil War.) And only after the Civil War did popular usage switch from the plural to the singular, talking about “the United States” as opposed to “these United States.”
In every political community, federal or not, identity is necessarily hierarchical, with several levels of belonging. People want a local identity, a sense of place, at the same time as they have a national political identity. Even France, with its clearly-defined universal political creed, is a nation with famously distinct local culinary cultures. (As Charles de Gaulle remarked, “How can anyone govern a nation that has 246 different kinds of cheese?”)
I will address the topic of nation-branding in my next post.
APPENDIX – TOP TEN MOVIES ABOUT CONNECTICUT
Connecticut’s image has not been particularly helped by Hollywood. Only a small number of movies have been set here, and many of them seem to involve suburban family crises:
The Stepford Wives (2003)
The Ice Storm (1997)
Far From Heaven (2002)
Revolutionary Road (2009)
Mystic Pizza (1988)
Stanley and Iris (1989)
Christmas in Connecticut (1945)
Indiana Jones movies (The classroom sequences are set at Yale.)