Shut Yer Piehole, St. Louis: We Got It Good!

To think that most of us didn't know any better

Let's face it: The main reason most human beings are in St. Louis is inertia -- 150 years ago, being located at the confluence of North America's two largest rivers meant something, but no longer. When was the last time somebody said, "Yeah, I'll overnight that to you right away. I'll put it on the first available barge"? During the Orange Bowl, FedEx talked about its air attack and ground attack, not its river attack. Sometime in the previous century, rivers lost out to railroads, and then on this side of 1900, trains were trumped by interstate highways, planes and the Internet. Silicon computer chips bring a much better price now than beaver pelts.

That brings us to St. Louis. No, wait -- we were already here. Maybe that's the point. The Regional Chamber and Growth Association has started an ad campaign, one that will be impossible to escape on local television and radio, trying to convince St. Louisans that this place ain't so bad after all -- as long as you compare it to someplace that's worse. Of course, by inference, the opposite is suggested. Even the title of the spot, "St. Louis -- We Got It Good," implies, well, that there are better places. But those other places cost more; or there are more people there, so it's more crowded; and the sports teams they have aren't nearly as good as our sports teams. So who needs mountains, beaches and temperate weather?

The commercials are a dose of promotional Prozac for St. Louis residents who are so downtrodden by living here they need an antidepressant ad to keep them from jumping off the Eads Bridge or, more predictably, from packing up a U-Haul and getting the hell outta this smaller, somewhat muted version of Detroit. Census results are coming out in March, and, aside from the usual trail of refugees from the city, St. Louis County this time looks to be losing population for the first time in memory. In part, this RCGA ad campaign is intended to stem the tide.

Two "Boston" sports fans gripe about their hometown teams. Feel better?
Two "Boston" sports fans gripe about their hometown teams. Feel better?

Dick Fleming, who, in the Bergermeister's words, is RCGA's "tubthumper," knows what to expect: "We'll continue to be an example of what happens when a community has a relatively flat regional growth and the core of the region is emptied out of population. That's been a 50-year pattern, and no one will be surprised that those numbers will be pretty sobering." He does point to a recent "modest" net growth in jobs that was "just marginally positive, but it broke a 30-year trend." Fleming knows the limits of what a barrage of free ads can do to change communal self-image. "We're not deluded that this is a panacea," he says.

One of the two TV ads that is airing -- and there will be a lot more -- features a guy who says he lives in a 500-square-foot New York City apartment for "only $1,900 a month. It's a steal." At the end of the commercial, the camera pans back and ... he's sleeping in a bathtub. So what's the message -- in St. Louis you don't have to use your bathtub as a couch? The other ad has two guys sitting at a bar, supposedly in Boston, yapping about their sorry-ass Red Sox, Patriots and Bruins. The one without a painted face notes that the Red Sox haven't won a World Series since 1918. For those of you who haven't thought about this in the last few days, the Cardinals last won the Series in 1982. So there.

The radio spots are a bit harder to follow. One features a "paracommute," wherein LA commuters are parachuting from a helicopter to cut the time it takes to get to work from two hours to 45 minutes. Another has a new Chicago resident telling a financial planner he doesn't "understand where all my money is going." The planner tells the client he needs to brush his teeth twice a day instead of three times a day to save 73 cents a month. It ends with the new Chicago resident being asked, "You want to live in Chicago? You want to live with the big boys?" The closing line is "In some cities, it's amazing how expensive everything from housing to toothbrushes can be. St. Louis -- we got it good." So even in a pro-St. Louis ad, there's the intimation that to compete with the "big boys" you have to migrate elsewhere, but if you choose not to compete, you can stay here and live more cheaply. Following that logic, a cave near Festus is even better.

Other catchphrases might have worked better with these ads. For the bathtub in New York City, it might have been "St. Louis -- it sucks, but the rent's cheap." For the radio ads, it might have been "St. Louis -- it sucks, but what an easy commute." Or "St. Louis -- it sucks, but you can have an extra toothbrush." For the boys in the bar, it could be "St. Louis -- it sucks, but how 'bout them Rams?" No, wait -- maybe they suck, too.

Whatever the point or the effect of these ads, most locals won't be able to avoid them. Though in effect they are well-done public-service announcements, unlike PSAs, they aren't running at 3 a.m. Already they've been on during prime-time network shows and during the evening and 10 o'clock newscasts. Karen Carroll, head honcho at KMOX (1120 AM) and one of the main brains behind the campaign, said at the kickoff: "The intent is for us to begin to create a campaign where all the broadcasters get behind it and we create a lot of positive conversations." How that kind of buzz could have any tangible result is unclear. Guess that means if folks say nice things to each other, they'll be less apt to move away.

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