The city turns to the Internet to sell the next idea of what we are: hip.
Back in March, on the last day of Austin’s South by Southwest Festival, I was looking for someone not from Philadelphia.
Simple enough: South by Southwest is the largest independent annual music festival in the country, with more than 1,500 bands vying for attention in parking lots and bars and a church and other venues rigged up around the small, rolling, quirky city — so of course there were tens of thousands of folks there not from Philadelphia. Except where I was. In a parking lot behind a vintage clothing store near the University of Texas, a handful of Philly indie bands had assembled, some of them via large white Ford vans driven all the way South, for the second annual Philly Jawn party, sponsored by the Philly blog Philebrity.com, the website Movetophilly.com (which encourages young, hip people to do just that), and … you. Or at least the nonprofit, tax-funded organization called the Greater Philadelphia Tourism Marketing Corporation, which, with an annual budget of $13 million and staff of 45, holds the extraordinary responsibility — and/or unique power — of defining to an international audience just what the massive, divergent and often inexplicable City of Philadelphia is.
The point was, obviously, to attract an audience of non-Philadelphians to this parking lot, people who could be swayed into believing something new about our city. The folks from the GPTMC want the greater world to know that Philly is not just “gray,” “industrial,” “old,” “cold,” “fat,” “cheese-steaks,” “the Liberty Bell,” and “that gay movie with Tom Hanks” — the descriptors Philly has struggled for decades to shake off, and the same ones people who’ve never visited offered me in Austin. For Philly is also apparently this: the good-looking and perfectly tattered young men playing decent if not totally memorable indie rock onstage, the pale-skinned, randomly tattooed androgynous hipsters in pencil-legged jeans and checked Vans and jean skirts and leggings milling about in the audience, even the skinny unshaven guys in the back of the lot stealing tokes from a bowl just a few feet from a well-built bouncer in a cowboy hat, and getting drunk on the sun and the free beer. They were variations of the same images splashed across huge banners the GPTMC had hung in the parking lot — Philadelphia images was the point, one showing a group of young adults in thrift-shop dress standing outside what looked like a South Philly dive bar eating yellow-mustarded soft pretzels.
There was just one problem: For the first hour of the city’s coming-out party, I couldn’t find anyone among the few dozen attendees who wasn’t already from Philadelphia.
Then I spotted him.
He was sitting inhaling the free beer and free tortilla chips and — embrace the irony here — free Philly cheesesteaks the GPTMC was offering, a thin guy wearing John Lennon-style glasses, with a thick beard, longish straight dirty-blond hair poking from a baseball cap, old jeans, thick woolen socks, and a pair of black slippers he’d laid down beside the green Army-style duffle bag from which poked the neck of an acoustic guitar. When there was a break in the music — after he’d scarfed two cheesesteaks and several beers — he abruptly got up and left. I followed him out onto Guadalupe Street, where he threw down his bag, pulled out his guitar, and began strumming.
His name was Brian, and he was from Oklahoma. I asked him what had brought him to the Philly Jawn. “The free cheese-steaks,” he answered, still strumming.
But what about Philadelphia?, I asked. Did he have a prior impression of the city? And had seeing the Philly contingent here today affected that impression in any way?
He told me he’d been to Philly once, on the bus, “in that Chinatown area.” He went on, strumming all the while, and it was hard to tell whether what followed was commentary on the city or just part of some free-associative song. “I was carrying an anvil,” he said/sang. “I found an anvil on the street in New York, and was going back to Oklahoma, and I didn’t want to have to put it down, ’cause I thought, ‘Oh, someone’ll take it,’ ’cause obviously I took it, so I figured it was worth taking.” Um, okay. So that’s what brought him to Philadelphia.
It wasn’t until an obviously much more perceptive guy than I walked by and offered him a half-eaten slice of pizza that I realized Brian’s clothes were probably tattered not by choice, but by circumstance, and that he, well, probably wasn’t planning an extravagant trip anytime soon to the cool, hip enclave that apparently is our city.
And so the obvious question: What the hell is the GPTMC up to, sponsoring parties in Austin?
THE GPTMC CAME TO AUSTIN as part of its latest multimillion-dollar international marketing campaign — called “uwishunu” — structured around the blog Uwishunu.com, which if ur 2 old and don’t get the name, is how the kids r abbreviating in computer-speak nowadays. The uwishunu campaign sprang from a Hospitality Summit that Mayor John Street convened in January 2006, at which 50 Philly tourism types — GPTMC and visitors bureau reps, hotel owners, “creative class” members and the like — came together to plan ideas for, as GPTMC president and CEO Meryl Levitz explains it, “how to tell the New Philadelphia Story.”
The summit ultimately determined that the future of the city’s marketing should be in so-called new media, mainly the Internet, and Street got $5 million from City Council on the GPTMC’s behalf, to be spent over two years on the creation of the uwishunu campaign and its blog centerpiece, a kind of Lonely Planet-esque online ultra-insider’s guide to Philadelphia. It was designed to appeal to the hip would-be visitor whose curiosity about Philly might be better piqued by learning about the next hot indie concert or the coolest wig shop in town (Masquerade, on Columbus Boulevard — “Lately, I’ve had this itching that I need a wig,” a recent post began) rather than, say, the Betsy Ross House or the Constitution Center. It marked the largest single investment of taxpayer dollars by any American city on new-media marketing, the hope being that uwishunu will strike a chord within young, hip Philly, which through advertisement and marketing will in turn resonate within the greater young, hip community across the nation and world, bringing thousands of cash-flush young, hip tourists to Philly, who upon seeing the city for themselves will abandon all negative preconceptions and maybe even decide to stay, thereby growing not only the tax base but also the amorphous but nonetheless highly desirable contingent of young, hip city residents that folks around City Hall like to call “the creative class.”
The campaign was originally conceived by Red Tettemer, a local ad firm. A significant portion of the first $2.5 million went toward the planning and development of the project and the blog, which features an elaborate network of links, as well as advertising the uwishunu brand, domestically and internationally, and the printing of small uwishunu guidebooks and other literature. Posts on the blog are made in eight categories, including shopping, dining, arts, nightlife, outdoor activities and music — tidbits about everything from the Mütter Museum (which “boasts … a chunk of brain from the dude who offed President Garfield, a collection [of] human skulls and all manner of other Mulder and Scully-style guts and weirdness”) to Philadelphia Glass Works (a “glass extravaganza” in Northern Liberties where “you’ll find edgy glass-art pieces like shackles with chain links”). Live blogging has also taken place during the Mummers Parade and the South by Southwest festival. Advertisements for the campaign are appearing in alt-weeklies in Baltimore, New York, Boston, Providence and similar cities — which is where, research shows, most of Philly’s visitors come from — and the uwishunu brand will get its name out through sponsoring events, such as the Philly Jawn in Austin or, closer to home, the Popped! indie music festival and the Black Lily film and music fest that came to Philly this spring.
About $2,000 was spent sending four GPTMC reps to Austin, where they not only helped set up the Jawn, but also attempted to make connections with various music publications to get them to come to Philly to cover our music festivals and, hopefully, our burgeoning music scene. When I noted that $5 million seemed like an extraordinary sum for a campaign that, after all, focuses on the Internet — a free medium — Levitz scoffed, convincing me that $2.5 million is a pittance in the launching of any international advertising campaign. “Do you know how much Las Vegas spends on their ‘What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas’ campaign?” she asked me. “Eighty-five million dollars.”
But the obvious question — the question I wondered back in Austin: Is it all a waste of money?
Steven Wells, a columnist for the Philadelphia Weekly who often pokes fun at the city’s supposedly significant hipster population, is dubious. Wells went to Iceland several years ago to report on a handful of Icelandic bands that had somehow taken the indie music scene in the U.K. and the U.S. by storm, and what effect they were having on the tourism industry. Iceland being as small as it is, he found the home phone number of the country’s president in the phone book, and arranged an interview at her house. “Do you think that this will spark a huge tourist boom and bring millions of American and British tourists to Iceland?” Wells asked her. “No,” she said. “What we get is a constant stream of people with backpacks and no money.”
It would be unfair, however, to dismiss the uwishunu effort whole-cloth, given GPTMC’s impressive track record in marketing the city in unconventional ways. Levitz and her people deserve some of the credit for the slew of tremendously positive attention the city has gotten recently from travel media, including a cover story in National Geographic Traveler touting Philly as America’s “Next Great City.” The “Philly’s More Fun When You Sleep Over” campaign, a discount hotel package launched after 9/11, when hotel stays were at historic lows and other cities were obsessing over patriotic advertising, reenergized the city’s tourism industry. (Overnight leisure visitation increased 55 percent from 1997 to 2005.) And not many city marketing campaigns can compare in audacity or apparent success with 2003’s “Philadelphia — Get Your History Straight And Your Nightlife Gay,” the GPTMC’s unprecedented effort to attract gay and lesbian travelers to the city by plugging its reputation for tolerance, its thriving “gayborhood” and its cultural offerings. According to GPTMC-funded research, for every dollar the GPTMC has spent on the campaign — some $300,000 annually — $153 has been returned in direct visitor spending by gays and lesbians; surveys of gay travelers show they spend double the amount of straight tourists. The campaign has been replicated by cities across the country, is the subject of a forthcoming book, and is taught in college marketing classes.
Jeff Guaracino, who helped create that campaign, says it’s benefited Philadelphia not just by bringing more gay tourists to the city: “It also became a signal to a younger audience that where gay stereotypes hold that gays have a fondness for arts and culture — that gay and lesbian travelers are always looking for the next cool thing — Philadelphia must be something more than maybe what you first thought. That it must have this thriving creative class.”
And that’s the hope with uwishunu — to create an image, to paint a nuanced picture of Philadelphia, a city that isn’t just about history or Rocky or, God forbid, rampant murder rates. The campaign is aimed at creating an image of a younger, cooler city than popular perception holds, a city with good falafel and great bars and weird neighborhoods and avant-garde artists and hot indie bands — an image that will appeal to a wide variety of travelers, even those who couldn’t care less about indie bands per se but like to visit cool places. In other words, it’s about projecting something nebulous and mostly inexplicable: cool. And at least so far, the tourism community at large seems to be jumping on board. Ten of the city’s most exclusive hotels — including Four Seasons, Loews, the Hilton and Sofitel — now offer their guests uwishunu “Philly Like a Local” packages, which include special bookings for one- or two-night stays, late checkout, the uwishunu guidebook, a CD featuring Philly artists, and special offers on shopping, dining and nightlife.
THERE ARE LINGERING QUESTIONS, however, about authenticity. Not just the authenticity of Uwishunu.com — though one Philly blogger called it a “not-so-subtle ad campaign disguised as a blog” — but the authenticity of the image uwishunu attempts to project. Was the image of Philadelphia on display in Austin, Texas, for example, representative of anything other than the tastes and interests of the small niche of Philadelphians who were there? And does the fact that the GPTMC — for all intents and purposes an arm of city government — is co-opting and actively projecting that image thereby inherently corrupt it, rendering it contrived and commercial? Certainly, for comparison’s sake, the grunge music scene in Seattle in the ’90s grew in spite of the powers that be, not because of them.
Back at Austin’s South by Southwest Festival — a festival and a city facing extraordinary consumer-driven change brought about by an alternative image that stuck and spread — these kinds of questions seemed particularly apropos. John Lomax, a writer for Houston’s alt-weekly who’s covered the festival for several years, noticed a shift this year that extends beyond Austin: “[A]s far as corporate America is concerned, the sale of music is no longer an end in itself. It is just another accoutrement of a fashionable lifestyle, a mixer to pour in your cup with your Southern Comfort and perhaps slosh on your brand-new Levi’s. What bugs me about it now is the whole charade — the companies pretend they aren’t marketing, and the fans believe that they aren’t being marketed to.” Indeed: “Keep Austin Weird” has gone from an underground mantra to a trademarked brand.
It’s a conversation taking place in Philly a lot these days, mostly in terms of the city’s high-profile hipsters, some of whom, it turns out, are partners with the GPTMC in the uwishunu campaign. They include Kendra Gaeta and Laris Kreslins of Movetophilly.com fame, who are on contract with the GPTMC. Gaeta and Kreslins are at the vanguard of the strange and seemingly paradoxical confluence of hipster and marketing, working also for Toyota. Joining them in Austin was the ubiquitous Joey Sweeney of the city’s snarkiest blog, Philebrity.com, who seems to have made a sport out of selling out these days; his recent appearance in a breathtakingly cheesy Philadelphia magazine advertisement supplement for which he and his girlfriend took an all-expenses-paid trip to Atlantic City on behalf of the Infiniti G and then wrote a back-and-forth two-page dialogue about it (“So the people at Philly Mag and Infiniti are really excited to hear about what we did on Our Magical Weekend in Their Car”) had bloggers and other professional Philly haters on their knees thanking God for the material: “What a fucking douche,” chimed one. “Welcome to the new millennium folks, where having actual wealth is no longer a qualification to be a ‘power couple,’” said another. “Selling out is the new in.”
Maybe so. But at least in terms of GPTMC and uwishunu, it kind of makes sense. For Meryl Levitz and company, after all, the whole thing’s about marketing. And it’s an obvious choice to use hipsters to market hip. As Levitz says, “Who would want advice from someone as old as me about what’s cool in Philadelphia?” (She’s 60.) Her goal, at the end of the day, is to get young people with some money — not guitar players hanging out on corners trolling for cash, but shoppers who buy into an edgy, hip scene as they make their own way up some corporate ladder — to come visit and spend and maybe fall in love with a Philadelphia that’s different from the one they presupposed all these years.
In a café in Austin, a GPTMC blogger tried mightily to catch a wi-fi signal to update Uwishunu.com with the latest from Texas — “I met a fellow by the name of Michael Redwise,” he wrote, “who’s a musician from Valley Forge, PA. It turns out he’s a hard-core cyclist like me (there are a lot of us in the Philly area). Michael gave me a homemade CD called Flying Solar Boy. … I’ll be on the lookout for his Trek bike with T-Rex on the handlebars when I get home.” I posed the question about authenticity to Caroline Bean, a good-looking 26-year-old with a subtle diamond stud in her nose. Bean, who’s originally from Delaware but moved to Philly a few years ago to handle national media relations for the GPTMC, told me she’s fallen in love with a version of Philadelphia she’d never known existed before. The way she sees things, it’s all a matter of Philadelphia’s great diversity, and of projecting a multi-dimensional image.
“It’s like the cheesesteaks,” she said. “We used to never take journalists on press tours to Pat’s or Geno’s because we didn’t want to reinforce that cliché. But people wanted to try a cheesesteak, and we eventually realized: Why not take them there? It’s part of Philadelphia. Philadelphia is many things. It can be anything you want it to be.”
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