Traverse City Record-Eagle

January 13, 2013

'Pure Michigan' ad, right- to-work link short-sighted


---- — The "Pure Michigan" ad campaign was created to lure vacationers to spend their time and money in Michigan. The ad's amazing success in luring visitors has come in large part because of the campaign's beautiful images of pristine lakes, dunes and forests.

A lot of people likely had little or no idea of just how beautiful our two peninsulas really are, and they have flocked here by the tens of thousands, boosting the tourism industry and pouring millions in taxes into government coffers.

Now, at least part of the message — delivered via a full-page Pure Michigan ad in the Wall Street Journal — is that Michigan is a right-to-work state, where workers who willingly accept on-the-job benefits their union has negotiated for them don't have to help pay to support that union.

What that has to with Pure Michigan is a mystery even, apparently, to the Michigan Economic Development Corp., which oversees the Pure Michigan campaign.

The ad included a banner headline, "What Happens When Michigan Makes History" and lauded Michigan as being the latest right-to-work state.

"All we've done is incorporate the most recent freedom-to-work law as a part of our messaging," MEDC CEO Mike Finney told the Detroit Free Press. "It's really a very targeted message about the positive business climate things that have happened in the state in the last two years."

So what does that very political message — which certainly doesn't reflect the views of a lot of Michigan residents — have to do with Michigan as a vacation destination? Does the MEDC really believe visitors will make a decision to vacation here based on the fact that Michigan is now right-to-work? Will visitors who are also union members be more inclined to spend their money here?

What's more likely is that people are going to see the ad — and Finney said there may be more of them — as a hijacking of a very positive, very successful ad campaign for partisan purposes.

Finney said the ad was a continuation of the state's use of the Pure Michigan brand for both business and tourism marketing — which is likely news to most Michigan residents, who have only seen the award-winning tourism side of Pure Michigan.

In fact, it wasn't until 2011 that Gov. Rick Snyder expanded the scope of Pure Michigan to include business boosterism in addition to tourism.

Now, the MEDC has tied the Pure Michigan brand, which Michigan taxpayers pay about $25 million a year to support, to a controversial political cause.

Sen. Howard Walker of Traverse City said "there are maybe some employers that are attracted to Michigan because it's a right-to-work state and (MEDC) thought it was worth getting the word out." Business types interested in whether Michigan is a right-to-work state likely have other avenues of information. And that still doesn't justify using what has become a recognized brand touting Michigan's beauty as a vacation destination for partisan political purposes.

Marketing and advertising experts said linking business and tourism boosterism, especially the controversial right-to-work issue, was a mistake.

"Pure Michigan is the gold standard of state branding," Kelly Rossman-McKinney, CEO of the Lansing-based Truscott Rossman marketing and public relations firm, told the Detroit Free Press. "That's the challenge of having such a great brand: You have to be disciplined enough to protect the brand under all circumstances."

Michael Bernacchi, a marketing professor at the University of Detroit Mercy, said using the Pure Michigan brand to promote the right-to-work legislation is "Pure B.S."

"This was really wrongheaded to do this," he said.

Just as the Legislature shoved right-to-work through with zero public hearings and no chance for dissent, Finney says the MEDC will continue using Pure Michigan for its pro-business agenda.

That virtually ensures Pure Michigan will eventually become just another business megaphone, and we'll have lost something special.