Tourism Fail

What do you think when you hear “Rhode Island”? Do you think of quaint New England towns, maybe of waves upon a rocky beach?

Do you think of anything at all?

If you’re in the latter group, the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation wanted to change that. They announced a $5 million dollar tourism campaign. They hired Milton Glaser, who became famous for designing the “I Heart NY” logo. They even announced a press event to launch the new campaign.


It did not go well.

Viewers immediately noticed that the 2-min commercial included footage from Iceland. (At the :09 second mark, the skateboarder is actually in front the Harpa music hall in Reykjavik.) The backlash on social media (especially Twitter) was swift and brutal.

Beyond such a critical gaffe, many more Rhode Islanders were left puzzled by the rather cryptic tagline. What do they mean “cooler” and “warmer”? The agencies claimed that the tagline was tested considerably amongst different groups of Rhode Islanders, but many remained unconvinced.

Given such fallout, it is no surprise that finger pointing, public apologies, and resignations ensued in due course. The CMO of the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation resigned. The agencies involved agreed to give back a total of $120,000 in taxpayer money, which was used to produce the botched video.

This recent incident was striking to me for one reason: How could they have gone so off-track? Some point to the agencies’ failure to conduct thorough research; others blame the fact that out of state agencies failed to capture what the state is truly like.

If I could hypothesize one reason why the campaign really went wrong, I would suggest that it demonstrates the pitfalls of loving your idea so much it leaves you blind to anything else, both good and bad. In a way, this incident also reminded me of that “Tonopah, Nevada” episode of The Pitch that we watched for class. In that episode, the two men wanted to describe the town as “weird” (if I remember it correctly). However, after testing that idea out with the city council members, they realized that “quirky” was a better fit (especially since “weird” felt offensive to the city council). But at least they listened to such feedback, instead of pushing on with their original idea.

Having gone through our own “big idea” pitches recently for this class, I myself realized how hard it is to keep tweaking and adjusting a big idea based on constant feedback. I think at some point you have to draw the line somewhere, but in Rhode Island’s case, I would argue that they drew that boundary too soon. (And maybe they also should’ve avoided using footage from Iceland in their promo video.)


New RI brand ‘Cooler & Warmer’ cost $550,000


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5 Responses to Tourism Fail

  1. tshuai says:

    After weeks of trying to come up with our big idea, I’m definitely with you on how easily we could get carried away by constant feedbacks and different opinions. Sometime, we need to stand by our own ideas to avoid constant modification. However, it is never good to ignore other’s opinions. Yes, I agree that there is a fine line between confidence and arrogance.

  2. nfong says:

    Wow, talk about a huge fail. I’ve never been to Rhode Island, so I would’ve had no idea the images weren’t from the state, but since they have been brought to my attention…why would they do that?! That defeats the whole point of an ad about visiting a state. It’s basically false advertisement and from one of class lectures, is that ethical!? I’m surprised nobody thought that maybe it wasn’t a good idea to use images from countries. People already don’t think to visit Rhode Island for fun, but now I definitely don’t think anybody is going to be visiting Rhode Island anytime soon…

  3. Jane Yi says:

    Francis, thanks so much for this post!

    I also absolutely love to travel and touring new places, so I can definitely see how this was a complete fail. You would think that the marketing executives would know by now that with social media and all, if people were keen on visiting a specific place, they definitely do their research ahead of time. For example, when we were planning to visit Oxford together, the first thing that I did was immediately go on Instagram and search hashtags on Oxford. You’re already able to get a general sense of the place and you can definitely tell which pictures aren’t from the real location.. Hopefully Rhode Island can recover from this because I’m sure that it has a lot to offer.

  4. Zihui says:

    Thank you for this great post!

    I personally love to travel and have been to the east coast multiple times, of course no Rhode Island yet. I have heard the place so many times because it is the smallest state in the US, it has a top-tier educational institution – Brown University, it has one of the best art schools too. I guess my eagerness of visiting RI has been built up throughout time… However, after watching this video, I am suspicious of what’s the uniqueness of RI. Like what we have done for our marketing campaign, not only for business, but for place like RI, a UMP should be developed in order to be creative in the following steps. For me, this campaign has not thought through the unique positioning of RI, therefore, the creative was not creative at all.

  5. ateng says:

    This campaign was a definite fail. Has anyone seen the ones done for California? I thought those commercials were done really well.