"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Rebranding America

With the millions of people desperate to migrate to America, and the miles of barbed wire, stop-and-ask-for-papers laws,and deportations, no one would not think that we had a branding problem.  Everybody wants to come here and our problem is keeping them out.

Not so, says the US government which has launched a rebranding exercise in an attempt to increase tourism.  Middle class foreign tourists are apparently quite different from Mexicans struggling to climb the border fence, and they need to be given a good reason to come.  Not surprisingly, these potential tourists have a lot negative impressions of the United States – crime, racism, rednecks, poverty, the NSA police state, jackbooted SWAT teams, guns, bums, and trailer trash.  Madison Avenue, however, can always be counted on to spin a happy tale and attract visitors to our shores.

Naturally, the advertising campaign is a feel-good, predictable celebration of diversity.  As reported by Michael Scaturro in The Atlantic (1.15.14):

Roseanne Cash’s catchy song, “Land of Dreams,” is the campaign’s centerpiece; and there are frequent cutaways to images of Americana, including a blonde woman tip-toeing through the Everglades, two smiling Muslim women strutting down a Manhattan street, a man of Asian descent riding a Harley-Davidson through a redwood forest, friends enjoying dinner in Napa Valley, a bi-racial couple celebrating their wedding in New Orleans, and a gay couple embracing on a trolley in San Francisco.

I think this feel-good, happy-talk approach is all wrong.  Everyone already knows about the Land of Opportunity, our mixed cultural heritage, and our boundless enthusiasm.  What they need to see is the real America – the country behind the glitz, fashion, and good looks.

North Dakota, an example of American entrepreneurial spirit reminiscent of the Wild West, Alaska, and the Gold Rush, should not be missed.

Jobs are plentiful, the state is booming, and money is being made hand over fist.  It is the new American frontier, the best expression of American can-do energy.  Men leave wives, children, and comfortable living for the riches of the North.  Tourists should be encouraged to visit North Dakota, see a great industrial power in the raw, and meet some of the Americans who have come to seek their fortunes.

A visit to South Dakota – right next door - should be next on the list, for it is an example of what the Bureau of Indian Affairs calls ‘indigenous husbandry’.  The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is a perfect place for the foreign tourist to relive an important part of American history. There, under the patronage of the Bureau, the visitor can see how Native Americans have forged a new life.  Tribal elders, like Jonathan Hawk Eye, provide visitors first-hand accounts of their Lakota forbearers, and how they left the harshness of the northern plains to settle down in Pine Ridge and enjoy the comforts of settled living. 

One of the great success stories of the last decade is the resurgence of Detroit.  The auto industry is booming again, and the city is once again on the way up.  Any tourist can visit Bel Air, Greenwich, or Pacific Heights – among the most exclusive enclaves of the United States, but by visiting the city of Detroit they can see American urban renewal from the ground up.

Too many tourists are content to see only the most familiar and now tired aspects of San Francisco – Fisherman’s Wharf, Nob Hill, and the Ferry Building.  But the city is a virtual kaleidoscope of sights and sounds.  It is especially well known for its street festivals and parades – Bay to Breakers, Gay Pride Day, Halloween, and especially the Folsom Street Fair.

“You can never understand America unless you understand the Deep South” is an often-heard comment and a very true one indeed.  Dixie, the land of cotton, plantations, and sophisticated Southern living should not be missed.  In this crucible of slavery and racial injustice has been forged a new, vibrant, and forward-looking region – one which retains is pride and sense of history but which is energetically and enthusiastically American.


There are hundred other examples of the ‘real’ America  – the Ozarks, Providence RI, and Anacostia, one of Washington’s all-African American communities, a vibrant cultural mecca for the black experience.

The US campaign to attract foreign tourists is an excellent one, for our image is indeed indistinct. Sometimes it is all gooey, romantic images of diversity; and others of a crime-infested country of Wall Street greed and abject poverty.  There is of course a middle ground, and places like North Dakota, Folsom Street, and Anacostia are excellent places to see the best that the United States has to offer.

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