Knee Jerk? Not Real.

1 Jun

Having proudly derided “Buffalo: For Real” here, I was interested to read this defense of the now-infamous slogan, penned by one of its pro bono creators, Joe Sweeney from local ad agency Travers Collins.

First, it speaks to Buffalo’s authenticity. After conducting some significant research, VBN realized that “cultural tourists” are the folks they should target with this new brand—people who visit a place to learn something, to feel the weight of history, to be inspired by human expression. People who would be intrigued by the prospect of seeing work by Wright, Sullivan, Richardson, Picasso, Kahlo and Burchfield, in a Rust Belt city known mainly for chicken wings and snow. “For Real” speaks to them directly, positioning Buffalo as a place where all of the sights are genuine, and none of the parks are themed.

Second, the line implicitly references the rampant skepticism that’s out there about our city. For far too long, when we’ve told out-of-towners that we love it here, they’ve responded incredulously — “For real?”

Now we have a comeback. For real, we love this place. For real, it’s beautiful. For real, it will move you.

I’m still having trouble deciphering what an “authentic” sight, is as compared with an inauthentic one.  But apart from the silly existential argument – if I can see it, isn’t it “real” and “authentic”? – the reason why this branding was so ripe for mockery has to do with something Buffalo is great at:

Even when we think we’re promoting and puffing the region, we do it in an apologetic way.

Excuses, excuses. We’re not as great as we once were, but we’re too poor and depressed to have torn it all down to make way for new stuff! We might have a dead downtown, but hey – no chains!

But these lines, earlier in the piece, stuck out:

I get the criticism, to an extent. Lord knows we should be critical of anything purporting to help our city. If we didn’t make our voices heard, we might have a fishing superstore dwarfing our historic waterfront. Plus, it’s tempting to make fun of a new “slogan,” especially when it’s for a place that’s a go-to punch line for bad comedians.

I think “purporting” is the key word in that passage. That video and this slogan merely purport to help the city. But they don’t. For the very select few who love old, dead buildings and architecture, they’ll love this campaign.  I’d be willing to bet that lots of people would come to Buffalo for a day trip or weekend from within a 200 mile radius if they knew there was something to do. (Wing Fest, Allentown Art Festival, etc.). I’d be willing to bet that efforts to attract people already in Niagara Falls or Niagara-on-the-Lake would also be lucrative and easy.

We have crappy signage, poor tourism information at or near the border crossings, (Ontario has staffed welcome centers off the QEW and 420), and some sort of ridiculous conceit about being “real”. We’re critical of this campaign because the campaign sucks, not because it “purports to help the city”.

And because we “made our voices heard”, there’s absolutely nothing – no fishing store, no nothing – on the Inner Harbor Canal Side parcels right now. Just some benches, some grass, some ruins.

I hope this kind of knee-jerk pessimism isn’t the lasting legacy of this marketing effort, because I really like “For Real.”

And another thing. It wasn’t “knee-jerk”; it wasn’t reflexive pessimism. It was a carefully thought-out, considered negative reaction to something silly.

25 Responses to “Knee Jerk? Not Real.”

  1. Susan Dayton June 1, 2011 at 7:36 am #

    How about marketing Buffalo as a place to view the ruins? We could be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. I always liked Natchez, MS, because it was left in disarray, since there was no impetus to tear the old structures down. 
    I think that your observation about having a welcome station is apt. By the time the Canadians reach the mall and discover that it has facilities that would be considered horrid by festival goers where beer is the primary beverage, they are ready to turn back home.

  2. John June 1, 2011 at 7:37 am #

    Buffalo is just not a destination city. It’s next door to Niagara Falls (and not the good side). It’s too far from any big cities for a day trip. It’s in the vague “upstate New York” area that no one outside of New York knows what that means.

    People visit or move to Buffalo because they have family from the region. That’s certainly the only reason I moved to Buffalo 3.5 years ago – my wife grew up here and has family here, and we found a great house that we could buy for pocket change having come from Chicago.

    When I consider what cities I want to visit, I think of big cities: Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, NYC; and I think of quirky medium-sized cities: Portland, Charlotte; but Buffalo would never hit my radar if I didn’t have family/friends here. Having a slogan doesn’t change that. But then, I wouldn’t fantasize about visiting Battle Creek, Huntsville, or Boise either if I didn’t have family or friends there.

    If Buffalo wants to change things, they need to make it a welcome place to work, and they need to give graduating students a reason to stay. The high taxes, the do-nothing government, the NIMBY and NIABY mindset, and the complete and utter failure to take advantage of the beautiful waterfront make this an uninviting place to live – regardless of the unemployment rate and the cheap housing. Those things plus the high cost of insurance in this state make this an uninviting place to start a business.

  3. Jesse June 1, 2011 at 7:52 am #

    Why do we need to find a single slogan to represent the place, anyway?

    If we want Buffalo to grow and compete in the world (not just NYS, NE, or the US), we have to be better than other places.  We’re stuck with the long winters (though with a little help from global warming, who knows?) so what else can we do?

    It seems to me like if you want to grow, you have to attract businesses (jobs), which then attract people.  So to do that it seems like we ought to be trying to make our business climate WAY THE HELL BETTER THAN OTHER PLACES.  I don’t really care about the specifics, but it seems to me clearing out red tape and lowering taxes can’t hurt.  It should be dead f***ing simple to start a business in WNY, and we should do whatever it takes to help keep them running.

    “For real” is another attempt at some design-by-committee approach that has brought us the last 60 years.  Yay for that.

  4. Mike in Florida June 1, 2011 at 8:32 am #

    What was the budget available for this project – it seems like there’s a lot of talk of “pro bono or at least “pro-bono-with-some-potential-publicity” –  and ought there be any type of relationship between that budget size and the vigor/direction of the criticism?

    It just seems a bit odd that a good intentioned effort that actually resulted in output ends up requiring a defense in the paper.  The subtext felt like:  Sorry folks, we won’t do something like that again.  Promise.

    The media has zero obligation, obviously, to automatically cheerlead anything intended as pro-Buffalo.  At the same time, it didn’t seem particularly useful to goose the tired, old wise guy parade – which never seems at a loss for active voluntary participation.

    Overall though, it seems like the video itself is less of an issue than the resources/commitment behind this project (balanced against other priorities**), and how we ultimately encourage (or not) private action for the region’s interests.

    ** All the wrangling about the video’s content aside, is anyone even watching it besides “us”? The YouTube numbers aren’t exactly Rebecca Black-ish.

    • Alan Bedenko June 1, 2011 at 8:54 am #

      The fact that “we” are the only ones watching that video underscores the fact that it was really designed to be a Buffalo boosting thing for the upcoming Lets Look At and Talk About Old Buildings Conference taking place here later this year. It was never meant to be something to “rebrand” Buffalo, but became that because they figured why not.

  5. Ethan June 1, 2011 at 8:40 am #

    I believe the vast majority of our problems stem from Albany’s dysfunction more so than ours.  See also: Rochester, Syracuse, Utica, Schenectady, Binghamton, &c.   

  6. pjf-usrt June 1, 2011 at 8:41 am #

    “If we didn’t make our voices heard, we might have a fishing superstore dwarfing our historic waterfront. ”

    Nice job Joe. Way to be a part of a team attempting to attract tourists while in the same article trashes something that would have done that at least as well as the silly “For Real” tourism slogan does. A fishing store on a waterfront – dumb. Tourism slogan: “For Real” – awesome? Ugh!

  7. Eric P June 1, 2011 at 9:29 am #

    Mike in FL ( # 4) may be onto something.  Perhaps we could have Rebecca Black record theme song for us.

    I’m pretty certain that the only reason NYC is popular is because of a Frank Sinatra song.  For real.

    BTW, who responds to anything anymore with the phrase “for real?  I believe the more appropriate / popular variety of incredulous response is more often something like “no shit?”.

    It could work.

    “Buffalo – No Shit?”.  

  8. Aaron June 1, 2011 at 9:42 am #

    This slogan is awful! Did Mr. Sweeney get his degree out of a Cracker Jack box? Sorry, its not knee-jerk pessimism when its just a stupid idea.

  9. Fat Tony June 1, 2011 at 9:44 am #

    Slogans are generally stupid anyway. This just gave the tourism folks something to present to their board to show their doing something and because it was done pro bono, they could say we’ve got something exciting and it didn’t cost us anything. Won’t do much one way or the other. But it does distract from the things they should be focusing on as Alan points out….better signage, a more user-friendly experience, etc. Those things aren’t sexy but they matter more than slogans.

  10. King Kong June 1, 2011 at 9:49 am #

    Slightly off topic, but can we start by just tearing down the fucking grain elevators please? Thanks.

  11. King Kong June 1, 2011 at 9:51 am #

    Other than that, I agree with everything that John said, except that I would place more of the blame on horrendous state government than on local government.

  12. Greg June 1, 2011 at 10:51 am #

    @ Eric — it would be: Buffalo — No Shit!

    I love it!

  13. Eisenbart June 1, 2011 at 12:15 pm #

    This is what Grand Rapids did, really awesome and got more attention than For Real ever will.

    Apparently in response  to being named a top dying city.  Doesn’t it just evaporate that perception?

    Grand Rapids video: 1,374,445 views

    Buffalo video : 43,077


  14. Brian Castner June 1, 2011 at 12:35 pm #

    Eisenbart FTW. But really, how can that video work? Its not full of people wearing bifocals.

    I have been planning an article about the genuinely successful things Grand Rapids has been doing to market their city. I need to move it from percolating to complete.

    • Alan Bedenko June 1, 2011 at 1:08 pm #

      I had heard of the Grand Rapids video, but hadn’t seen it until just now.

      I had heard of Grand Rapids before, but never considered it to be worth a second thought until just now.

      Because we can hear all about civic pride and sense of place and all of that other bullshit psychobabble garbage, but that video embodies it. Look at the community and business support. Look at the participation. Look at how inventive, cool, and all-American it is. It doesn’t condescend to us. It doesn’t talk about its past glories or present woes. It doesn’t lecture us about authenticity – it shows us its authenticity over 9 1/2 minutes.

      It doesn’t mean people are going to suddenly eschew a Disney vacation for Grand Rapids any more than people are going to pick Buffalo over San Francisco. But it makes Grand Rapids look like a pretty nice place filled with pretty nice people who have a fun time enjoying their city, and went out of their way to show their love for it.

      What a stark indictment of Buffalo’s tourism promotion “efforts”.

  15. Brian June 1, 2011 at 4:15 pm #

    Buffalo–We Used to Be Something

  16. Jackson Smiles June 1, 2011 at 11:14 pm #

    Yeah… no matter what the ad agency tries to say, it still sucks.

  17. Hank June 2, 2011 at 9:39 am #

    Finally agree with Ethan on something—Alan has also opined for years that until Albany gets its shit together, Buffalo is fucked flat. But then again, Buffalo was fucked the day the St. Lawrence Seaway opened up. What you see today is a result of a 55 year long domination of the Mayor’s office and the Common Council by the Democratic Party—So if you Dems are feeling down about Buffalo’s condition—slap yourselves on the back—you got what you voted for!

  18. BrianS June 2, 2011 at 10:54 am #

    Most people realize EVRYPLACE has it’s cool little things…. HOWEVER, that Grand Rapids video makes it clear that this is a young, hip place to be. They didn’t say it, they demonstarted it. That vid sincerely changed my impression of that city in under 9 min. That was a crreative masterpiece, IMHO. The Buffalo video made me yawn. It’s amazing what creativity can do. For real.

  19. Black Rock Lifer June 2, 2011 at 11:56 am #

    @Hank- Buffalo’s problems have little to do with the Democratic Party and everything to do with loss of industry, sprawl, concentrated poverty, and racism. 55+ years of enabling suburban developement with housing subsidies, highway construction, and the use of government to disenfranchise the poor are the root causes. BTW, almost all these destructive policies are the result of Republican and Conservative ideology.

  20. King Kong June 2, 2011 at 2:58 pm #

    Hank – The Democratic party in Buffalo and in Erie County is in anything but lockstep. I cannot remember a mayoral election where there hasn’t been a Democratic primary. The Conservative party also often plays a key role in Buffalo politics, even electing Jimmy Griffin on its line.

  21. Joe Genco June 3, 2011 at 7:18 am #

    This is the sort of over-manipulated, over-analyzed message that rings inauthentic to anyone but the beautiful people who embrace multi-level marketing schemes and McMansions. At least there are passionate people left around to bitch about it.

  22. Pauldub June 3, 2011 at 9:53 pm #

    You find so many old people in Buffalo because they can’t afford Florida. Because they have their kids still living with them. Because their kids can’t find a job here. If they built Bass Pro, the kids could have worked there, and the parents could afford to move south. We suck because we have no Bass Pro.


  1. Brain Gain: A How-To Guide « - June 8, 2011

    […] words, one naturally seeks out a good example of the same phenomenon for comparison. Thank you to regular reader and commenter Eisenbart for pointing us in the direction of Grand Rapids’ lipdub phenomenon, 2.8 million views on […]

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