Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

You can't touch this

For weak sloganeering...

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If anything can sell Manitoba to the world, it's a 49-year-old Bay Area rapper who reached the peak of his career 20 years ago.

At the dawn of the 1990s, MC Hammer was one of the biggest pop stars on the planet. He had impeccable dance moves. He wore shiny suits and baggy pants. He shared a friendship with Arsenio Hall and a phony rivalry with Vanilla Ice.

And like any mainstream rapper, he also had a catchphrase: "Stop. It's Hammer Time!"

A couple of decades later, MC Hammer works as a preacher and his music only winds up in the public consciousness when writers on Family Guy resort to parodying U Can't Touch This for a cheap gag.

But somewhere in the bowels of Manitoba's tourism industry, somebody had the bright idea of resurrecting the concept of Hammer Time and applying it to this province, as odd as the fit may be.

Now in the middle of the most glorious summer in several years, ongoing flooding notwithstanding, every event in this province is supposed to be sold under the slogan "It's Manitoba Time" without a trace of irony.

Going to the Winnipeg Folk Festival this weekend? Well, it must be Manitoba Time. Heading up to Grand Beach? That, too, is Manitoba Time. Downing a few beers at a backyard barbecue? Well, that would actually be Miller Time.

But the point remains: What the hell are the people on Broadway doing to allow another sloganeering embarrassment in this province?

Only a couple of years back, when the Doer government signed off on the disastrous Spirited Energy campaign, politicians and administrators alike swore they would never engage in a pointless branding exercise again.

Spirited Energy didn't just fail because the slogan was idiotic, although it most assuredly was. The campaign failed because it had no discernible objective and no measurable goals, unlike a real tourism campaign or a genuine economic-development strategy.

When states and provinces such as North Dakota and Newfoundland & Labrador go out and sell themselves as tourism destinations, they offer travellers images of the activities they could do in their respective jurisdictions, which -- like Manitoba -- are a little off the beaten path. Any sloganeering is purely supplemental.

First and foremost, "legendary" North Dakota shows off the amazing badlands in Theodore Roosevelt National Park, the home of a legendary U.S. president. Patriotic stuff works down there. The images work even better.

Newfoundland & Labrador usually shows off the stunning vistas at Gros Morne National Park and actually uses "off the beaten path." The phrase is obvious but accurate. The images, which I'm sure you've seen, are nothing short of spectacular.

Travel Manitoba makes good use of images as well and used to have a tagline that applied to Manitoba. Our perennially underfunded tourism agency does a great job selling destinations ranging from Churchill, fishing lodges and the Winnipeg Folk Fest, up until recently using the understated "Undiscovered" slogan.

"Undiscovered" wasn't spectacular, but said something about the province: Come here and beat the crowds of tourists in the Rockies or Old Montreal. Try something new. Come change your opinion about a province you thought was full of canola.

But this year, Travel Manitoba has been saddled with the inexplicable "It's Manitoba Time" in an ill-advised effort to place everything in the province under a single banner this summer.

I say saddled because I know the folks at the agency are too smart for this. They suffered through the entire Spirited Energy debacle. They would have loved to use those millions to supplement conventional travel-marketing efforts -- the kind where you spend advertising dollars to show off Manitoba's attractions, not try to brand the entire province.

Those are also the kind of efforts with measurable goals.

Spirited Energy's follow-up, Manitoba Homecoming 2010, was supposed to have measurable goals. But it, too, was an objective failure because its organizers simply placed the banner all over every Manitoba event last year and had no means of discerning whether the homecoming brand helped them out.

"It's Manitoba Time" is suspiciously similar. It's a tagline thrown over everything without saying anything about the province.

It was a stillborn failure from the beginning.

So how do you sell Manitoba? It's pretty easy: We have countless lakes, uncrowded beaches, virgin wilderness and a capital large enough to offer big-city cultural attractions but small enough to be quirky and manageable.

In short, you leave the tourism people alone and let them do their bloody jobs, without trying to create overarching themes that merely inspire ridicule.

MC Hammer is a punchline to a joke. Unlike Will Smith, he did not survive his era -- that is, until we made him our unofficial spokesman for the summer.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 10, 2011 A8


Updated on Sunday, July 10, 2011 at 3:34 PM CDT: Fixed cutline

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About Bartley Kives

Bartley Kives wants you to know his last name rhymes with Beavis, as in Beavis and Butthead. He aspires to match the wit, grace and intelligence of the 1990s cartoon series.

Bartley joined the Free Press in 1998 as a music critic. He spent the ensuing 7.5 years interviewing the likes of Neil Young and David Bowie and trying to stay out of trouble at the Winnipeg Folk Festival before deciding it was far more exciting to sit through zoning-variance appeals at city hall.

In 2006, Bartley followed Winnipeg Mayor Sam Katz from the music business into civic politics. He spent seven years covering city hall from a windowless basement office.

He is now reporter-at-large for the Free Press and also writes an outdoor-recreation column called Offroad for the Outdoors page.

A canoeist, backpacker and food geek, Bartley is fond of conventional and wilderness travel. He is the author of A Daytripper’s Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada’s Undiscovered Province, the only comprehensive travel guidebook for Manitoba – and a Canadian bestseller, to boot. He is also co-author of Stuck In The Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg, a collaboration with photographer Bryan Scott and the winner of the 2014 Carol Shields Winnipeg Book Award.

Bartley’s work has also appeared on CBC Radio and Citytv as well as in publications such as The Guardian, explore magazine and National Geographic Traveler. He sits on the board of PEN Canada, which promotes freedom of expression.

Born in Winnipeg, he has an arts degree from the University of Winnipeg and a master’s degree in journalism from Ottawa’s Carleton University. He is the proud owner of a blender.

On Twitter: @bkives

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