Camden: “I Went and I’m Not Dead”

This is how well the new billboard urging people to "say something nice about Camden" is working.

Camden is the municipal version of Peanuts character Pig Pen: No matter how hard people tried to clean up Pig Pen, he was always a mess.

Since I can remember, people with good intentions have put time, money, energy and brainpower into turning Camden around and it remains a mess. The census bureau tells us it is the poorest city in America. Crime statistics tell us it will undoubtedly reclaim its title as the most dangerous city, and 23 of its 26 schools are failing. Some have simply called it the worst city in America.

Nothing a billboard and an Internet marketing campaign can’t fix. That seems to be the thinking of the latest well-intentioned, but delusional, person who wants to help Camden. Jennifer Barton is an advertising executive in Manhattan who spent many years living and working in Camden.

She is the force behind the new billboard on the Admiral Wilson Boulevard that pleads for us to “Say something nice about Camden.” The theme is repeated in an online and social media marketing campaign. Barton is paying for everything with private money. It is both noble and misguided.

If Barton’s strategy is to get attention for Camden, she has succeeded. The billboard has been featured in the national media. Personally, I think Camden would have been better off not calling attention to itself right now, but I’m sure Detroit appreciates the diversion.

But, if Barton’s strategy is to get people to actually say nice things about Camden, that has backfired miserably. Comments on media websites, posts on Facebook, and tweets have been mercilessly funny. Here is a sampling:

“Say something nice about Camden. Um … I got nothing.”

“I went for the nightlife. I stayed, well, because of the coffin.”

“It rhymes with Ralph Kramden and I liked him.”

“I can see Philadelphia from my house.”

“Sure there is crime, but they have a great police department … oh wait.”

And finally, “I went and I’m not dead.”

Maybe this is a good time for a lesson in public relations. We’ll call it PR 101. When putting together a marketing campaign for a product, in this case a city, your goal should be to get people to feel and say good things. A campaign that makes people ridicule the product is bad.

The “Say Something Nice About Camden” begs for sarcasm. Like this: If a New York ad executive can’t think of something good to say about Camden, don’t look at me.

And that’s the problem: The billboard seems to be looking for something nice to say. There is the Battleship News Jersey, the Adventure Aquarium, Campbell’s Field and the Susquehanna Bank Center. Anyone who has spent any time on the Camden waterfront knows there are plenty of nice things there. Camden has done a better job of developing its Delaware River real estate than Philadelphia.

Jennifer Barton is quoted as saying, “The aim is not to whitewash the many bleak stories and startling statistics coming out of Camden.” Really? I kind of thought that was the job of an ad executive, to hide the bad stuff and showcase the good stuff.

Maybe we should just go ahead and take down the billboard. Let’s forget trying to fix Camden’s image and instead concentrate on fixing Camden. That way the image will take care of itself.