Friday, March 8, 2013

Taking Responsibility For Misery In Rockford, Illinois

For all actions there is an equal and opposite reaction. One of the laws of physics. Maybe. I'm not a physicist, but I'm certain I've heard that somewhere before. The poet John Keats had a similar concept for dealing with the negative. He called it negative capability, and the general gist of that is creation involves what you do with the empty, negative spaces the Universe offers you. You can see them as empty, dark places, or as opportunities to create something where nothing existed before. To do this one needs to ignore the boundaries and boxes we too often feel we're confined by. Blow up the paradigm. 

It's almost never in this life you're given a perfectly operating widget factory with no defects and all you're asked to do is sit in your office and press a button when you want coffee. No. No one ever hands you the keys to the New York Yankees and a blank check and says "just win." If you want to succeed at anything more than likely you'll do it from humble beginnings, without much help from anyone else, and often you'll encounter criticism and challenges from those who say either it can't be done, or it shouldn't be done.

That said, this blog is about Rockford, Illinois, and the Misery Loves Company of The Rockford Area Convention and Visitors Bureau.

No, actually this blog is about me. Someone I knew once gave me a St. Jude medallion because with the amount of hopeless and forsaken causes I champion they thought I needed all the help I could get. One time at Castaways, the bar my brother and I owned, we were literally working under three inches of water because of flooding, and I lost that medallion. A few weeks later it flooded again, and St. Jude popped up from the abyss I thought it had disappeared into. 

What's the point? None, really, I just detect an resemblance between the advertising campaign I designed for Castaways, a bar that had been largely forsaken and left for dead under a bridge, and the RACVB's campaign Misery Loves Company. Here's one of the radio spots I wrote.

When I wrote that spot I had been given what seemed like an impossible task. To get people to come to a dive bar under a bridge with a tradition of being seedy, unpleasant, and crowded with unfriendly drunks. Did my campaign work? Well, no, because it was impossible, but I can say 7 years later that location has been revitalized and made relevant again. I was charged with reversing a negative image and making it into a positive.

It's not easy to change public perception. Especially a deeply ingrained, negative public perception. I can understand what the RACVB was thinking when they devised the Misery Loves Company Campaign, but I don't think it works. Because words have meanings. And your audience tends to tune you out these days before you get to your punchline. If I say "Bill Clinton is a terrible womanizer and the best President we've had in recent history," what most people will remember is that I just admitted, or asserted, that Bill Clinton is a womanizer. Everyone who already believes that is going to use that to re-affirm what they already believed, and almost everyone else is going to be checking their Twitter before you finish with your message. 

Another reason I find the campaign to be a mistake is that the RACVB is trying to assume the role of the underdog, or the put upon little guy fighting the big machine, but these are the people who comprise the machine. At least the local machine. They don't understand the true struggle of people who are oppressed, forsaken, or marginalized by the prevailing system. they ARE the ones who messed it up in the first place, now they want to make a joke as if they're clever. And it rings as dull as a bell of lead. A better tack, in my opinion, would be to accept their large role in creating the very conditions they now want to lampoon, apologize, then promise to do better. Sure, humor can be part of that, but if my surgeon cuts off the wrong leg the last thing I want to hear from him/her is a joke. If you want to do comedy, hit one of the open mic comedy nights here in Rockford.

It's an added insult to an injury for which you were largely responsible.

This community needs Sully Sullenberger, not the Italian Cruise ship captain who needed to be ordered back on the boat by authorities. 

I understand the idea behind this campaign. Hell, it's almost identical to the one I tried to use to turn around a business with a long history of mismanagement, but in my campaign I wasn't saying my business sucked, I was saying it didn't suck. I didn't allow the listeners first contact with my product to be an admission of failure. After an admission like that your punchline is irrelevant. You already told us what you thought about your own city. 

Words have meanings. Here's another example from Rockford, Illinois.

Now this is just an unfortunate and careless thing to let people you're trying to convert see. True, I'm hypersensitive to the juxtaposition of language and images, being a poet, and I did see this banner about a million more times than your average Rockford citizen, but until you stop doing things like this you're going to be mocked. 

An old cliche says that all publicity is good publicity, even when it's bad, but mockery is never good. be defiant, yes, and people might take up for you because you're fighting back in the face of hopeless odds, but be a smartass when you're trying to evade responsibility and people will skewer you. And that's how this campaign feels to me and a lot of the creative types I know who actually work in this city trying to create and just doing our best to get by.

Maybe your campaign will be successful. I'd have preferred to see something like what the American auto industry had to do when they fessed up to making crappy cars and getting outworked and outdesigned by the Japanese for a long time, but the difference makers in this town don't seem interested in shouldering the blame for anything. The ship went down. You were at the helm. Apologize and start looking outside the myopic cadre of cohorts who seem to be exercising too much influence and using too little judgement to be trusted in the future.

Scrap this ill-conceived campaign, apologize, accept responsibility, then have a real meeting with the creative types of Rockford. The types of people out there populating the art scene, the music scene, opening stores and restaurants, small businesses of every type. You've ignored them for too long, and your tone deafness has led to this heaping on of criticism from the national media. The national media has no bone to pick with Rockford. They couldn't care any less. They're just reporting facts. And John Keats would advise you to use that assessment as a motivation to change the paradigm, flip the script, and make Shinola out of this mountain of shit.

You're welcome, too. 

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  1. Excellent blog, my friend! I'm glad I found it!!

  2. Thank you for the kind words. Hope to see you again.


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