Anyone who grew up in New Jersey during the 1980s—as I did—can’t help but remember the commercials featuring then-governor Tom Kean strolling along the boardwalks and beaches of the state’s famous shoreline and declaring, “New Jersey and you, perfect together.” Kids up and down the Garden State found Kean’s patrician and decidedly un-Jersey accent hilarious. We delighted in mimicking it: New Jehsey and you, pehfect tahgetha. Who was this guy? He didn’t sound like he was from Jersey to us. What a joke.
But the taxpayer money spent by state governments on such campaigns is no laughing matter. State tourism agencies drop huge sums developing slogans and buying television, radio, and print ads in a near-constant cycle of self-promotion. Not surprisingly, they almost always report that funds spent on advertising translate into tourist spending and tax revenues many multiples of the original outlay. Michigan says that the $13 million it spent in 2013 on its out-of-state “Pure Michigan” commercials translated into $86.6 million in tax revenue for the state. Nevada tourism officials say that last year’s $9 million “A World Within. A State Apart.” campaign—promoting “uniquely Nevadan” experiences—brought in $98 million in visitor-related tax revenue. North Dakota claims that the $1.9 million it spent on its 2012 “Legendary” branding campaign produced more than $231.6 million in visitor spending and $17.8 million in tax revenue.
Just this week, the Connecticut Office of Tourism (COT) announced a $3.4 million advertising blitz designed to entice visitors to the Nutmeg State. A series of television spots bearing the slogan “Revolutionary Thoughts” will run between now and August in New York City, Western Massachusetts, and Providence, Rhode Island. According to state officials, the campaign “plays up the idea that escaping to Connecticut offers travelers a diverse balance of relaxing and active, historic and contemporary, culture and nature-oriented activities—without having to drive too far.” How delightful. How Connecticut. The effort builds on a previous one. Just two years ago, Governor Dannel Malloy launched a $27 million campaign to bolster tourism in the state. FleishmanHillard, the public relations agency responsible for 2012’s “Still Revolutionary” campaign, claims that the ads—which played in 45 states—led to $161 million in revenue for the state and created “increased awareness of Connecticut as a place to visit.” According to the firm, “The state’s revamped Facebook page catapulted from 5,000 ‘likes’ to 100,000 in nine weeks.”
It’s hard to find a state tourism campaign—no matter how anodyne and unoriginal—that hasn’t translated, according to its sponsors, into more money, heightened awareness, and enhanced “brand value” for a state. The “science” of determining the effectiveness of such ads, however, is dubious. States typically employ marketing and research firms to “track” visitors and survey them about their choices and habits. One such firm surveyed visitors to Colorado who had seen the state’s 2012 “Come to Life” commercials, which ran heavily in Phoenix, Dallas, and Chicago. Tourists were asked whether the ads had anything to do with their decision to come to Colorado. If the answer was yes, the firm then asked how much money they spent while on vacation there. Those figures were totalled up, and the state tourism agency used them in its press releases.
Colorado claimed, for example, that its measly $4.5 million investment paid off to the tune of a whopping $898 million spent by vacationers. Put another way, according to the Colorado Tourism Office, every dollar spent by the state on the 2012 ads resulted in $200 in private-sector spending. But this method of calculation ignores the fact that, while Colorado spends real taxpayer money on advertising, all the dollars that tourists spend cannot be tallied as net profit to the state’s tourism industry—unless everything they buy on vacation, from ski poles to schnapps, is entirely produced in the state. Needless to say, that’s rarely the case in Colorado (or anywhere else).
If the tourism-spending “multiplier” effect were true, it would raise the question: Why do states spend so little on television ads, when investing in tourism promotion leads inexorably to such eye-popping returns? Some enterprising state tourist agency with a taste for the unique, the revolutionary, and the legendary should test the limits of that proposition. If spending $1 on tourism gets you $200 in return, why not spend $200, or $2 million, or $200 million? Surely there is plenty of room to do more effective advertising before the law of diminishing returns kicks in. I’ve got a readymade slogan for that campaign: “You never know until you try.”