Tuesday, August 3, 2010

PR, kitsch, and big bananas

I noticed an exciting piece of news on CBC’s Manitoba site this morning: the southern Manitoba town of Melita will be unveiling its new roadside attraction this Saturday.

(Image from CBC, courtesy of the Melita and Area Tourism Committee)

“On Aug. 7, the community will unveil a nine-metre-tall banana holding a blue jay in its hand and wearing a championship wrestling-style belt.

The giant yellow fruit represents Melita's location in southwestern Manitoba's so-called Banana Belt, so named because of the comparatively moderate weather.

The blue jay symbolizes Melita's status as a key site for bird conservation in the province.

Melita will henceforth not only be known as the grasslands birds capital of Manitoba, "it is also a town with a-peel," the Melita and area tourism website states.”

Banana? Check! Belt? Check! Bird? Check!

The story reports that everyone in attendance at the unveiling will be given a banana split.


Manitoba loves its roadside attractions

If you’re not from around here, allow me to reassure you: Melita’s Big Banana is far from alone when it comes to roadside attractions in this province. From Saint-Claude's "World's (second) longest smoking pipe" (left, photo credit: Saint-Claude Tourism website) to Komarno’s giant mosquito (below, photo credit: Gerry Fox), roadside attractions in communities across the province distinguish many small towns from many other small towns.

They're kitschy. They're tacky. But do they help our PR?

You bet!

Roadside attractions began growing in popularity in Canada and the U.S. in the late 1930s, when long-distance road travel became more accessible to families. Towns along major highways erected large sculptures or structures, usually related to the characteristics, industry, or history of the place to attract tourist eyes... and dollars. I mean, if you need to stop for fuel and lunch, why not stop for fuel and lunch... and a picture of Sally with a giant artichoke?


If you Google “roadside attraction,” your search results will show there's still significant interest in roadside attractions among travelers (for example, articles on www.scenictravelcanada.ca, www.rvlifemag.com and www.americansguide.ca); so roadside attractions can help with a small town’s marketing for tourism. Simply put: they attract attention.

Just last summer, Canada Post issued a series of stamps commemorating popular Canadian roadside attractions. The artist who designed them, Fraser Ross, said: “They’re like historical landmarks in both a literal and figurative way... They literally mark a location, but they also mark a time and place. On family vacations, we all stop; we stare; and we rarely leave without a picture. Over time, we may forget the details of a vacation, sometimes even the destinations themselves, but somehow the roadside attractions we meet along the way find a permanent place in our memories and photo albums.”

Or, in terms a marketer might like: that little town we visited might not ever have lured us back... but now, we want a picture of our kids in front of the same attraction that enthralled us decades ago.

Further, roadside attractions become part of a small town’s brand. Which of the little towns north of Winnipeg is Komarno? Oh, right! The one with the giant mosquito! And while some may cringe at the giant structures’ gaudiness, many community members get in on the joke, accepting and taking pride in the kitschy profile of the attraction as both a highway signpost and a public declaration of the town's collective sense of humour. If you’re not sure what I mean, see the note in the CBC article above about Melita’s self-described new “a-peel.” What's not to like?

Finally, some free PR advice for the Melita and Area Tourism Committee

In a review of photographer John Margolies’ book Roadside Attractions for NPR earlier this year, Claire O’Neill lamented the “decline of kitsch” – specifically mentioning “jumbo bananas” – and begged her readers to prove her fears unfounded with photos of new roadside attractions.

The folks at the “town with a-peel” might just want to follow up.

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