By now the story of Rhode Island’s bungled $5 million tourism-marketing campaign is well known. The two-minute promo video included footage of Iceland. The confusing slogan, “Cooler & Warmer,” faced merciless criticism before being retracted. The new sailboat logo, many agreed, was not the finest work of 86-year-old, New York-based designer, Milton Glaser, who once crafted the iconic “I [heart] New York” campaign. The website visitrhodeisland.com was riddled with errors, like the claim that the Ocean State has “20 percent of the country’s historic landmarks.” Before it was over, the debacle made the New York Times, CNN, and the BBC.
This is the bad news.
And, yet, this isn’t a sad story. Because, as I pointed out during the Twitter-storm, we’re still selling a fantastic product.
Rhode Island has everything a visitor could want. We have a “triple Five-star” beachside resort, an outstanding art museum, 400 miles of coastline, glorious state parks, one of the longest stretches of preserved historical architecture in the country, mind-blowing restaurants, legendary summer folk and jazz festivals, dazzling hotels, the country’s oldest Fourth of July celebration, jaw-dropping libraries, an array of superb theater options, world-class sailing and seafood, top-notch colleges and universities, charming coffee shops and independent cinemas, professional and college sports, and a long list of islands to explore. We have what you’re looking for – and it’s often cheaper and less crowded than elsewhere in the Northeast. Plus, once you’re here, everything else is within an hour’s drive.
But the real reason to visit is the state’s spirit. Rhode Island was founded in the 1630s after Roger Williams was convicted of preaching “new & dangerous opinions” and banished from Massachusetts. His crime? Passionate advocacy for what he called “soul liberty” – what we now call “separation of church and state.” Today, some of Rhode Island’s historic sites – the First Baptist Church in America, the Great Friends Meeting House, “America’s Oldest Synagogue” – are physical monuments to the freedom he established in his new home state, 50 miles south of Boston. As local historian Stanley Lemons once said, “Even if nothing in the rest of the history of our state was remarkable, Providence would still have that one world-class contribution to its credit. It was the first place in modern history where citizenship and religion were separated, where freedom of conscience was the rule.”
The state never really outgrew William’s dual legacy of defiance and radical acceptance. Rhode Island was the first colony to declare independence from Great Britain and the last to ratify the U.S. Constitution. Here was where the American Industrial Revolution started, where Prohibition was never ratified, and where Bob Dylan went electric. We’re the home of the barrier-breaking African American soprano Sissierietta Jones, the “cosmic horror” author H.P. Lovecraft, and the noise-rock duo, Lightning Bolt. We’ve never liked conformity, or being told what to do – the statue atop our state house is called the Independent Man – and that spirit still flourishes. We’re currently building the first offshore wind farm in the U.S. We’re home to America’s first publicly out transgender high school sports coach. We gave the world “America’s most exciting punk band,” the Downtown Boys.
Right now, Governor Gina Raimondo’s team is surely scrambling to fix the errors and get its high-priced marketing campaign back on track. Maybe the project will find its footing; maybe it won’t.
But the true allure of Rhode Island isn’t found on a billboard or in a YouTube clip. It’s found at the Roger Williams National Memorial, the Newport Mansions, and Woonsocket’s Museum of Work & Culture. It’s found at AS220 and the Arcadia Management Area. It’s found the side streets of Warren, the beaches of South Kingston, the apple orchards of Smithfield, and the Mexican and Cambodian restaurants of Providence. It’s found in the music of What Cheer? Brigade; the prints of Ian Cozzens; the activism of D.A.R.E., PrYSM, and the Providence Student Union; the “pond-to-plate” dishes at Matunuck Oyster Bar; and weekly free-to-all nights at Brown University’s Ladd Observatory. You can’t convey 380 years in a two-minute video. You don’t cover 1,200 square miles with a single sailboat logo. You can’t speak for a million people with a three-word tagline.
Part of what ticked me off about the flubbed campaign was how mediocre, uninspired, and sloppy it made us look. This wasn’t just embarrassing, it was false advertising. Rhode Islanders care fervently about quality – whether it’s food, design, higher education, social justice, historic preservation, arts and culture, or life in general. That’s why I live here. And that’s why I sing the state’s praises and shout about its shortcomings.
Come to think of it, maybe that should be our new slogan: “Rhode Island: Come See Why Everyone Here Is So Defensive.”