Remember the scene in the movie Poltergeist when the worried parents came home to find their young daughter staring at a TV screen of static? The spooky little girl turned around and announced to her terrified folks, “They’re here.”
I felt that way when I saw the recent marketing efforts for the areas in the Northeast hammered by Superstorm Sandy. Seems like they hired the same incompetent marketers that worked in the Gulf Coast after the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico.

Back then, a prolonged recession, increased competition, reduced consumer confidence, and many other reasons had already softened most of the Gulf Coast destinations’ business. But after the BP disaster they felt that by just announcing, “We don’t have greasy beaches yet,” consumers would arrive in droves. But since when was telling people the reasons why they shouldn’t not come considered good marketing?

“Eat here, our restaurant isn’t dirty.”

“Drive our car, it’s not unsafe.”

“Wear our jeans, they don’t make you look fat.”

Thanks to Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton, even most politicians have learned that defending a negative doesn’t work:

“I am not a crook.”

“I did not have sex with that woman.”

Oh yeah? How’d that line work out for you?

Saying, “We weren’t flooded” or that “Our citizens depend on casino jobs” is more of the same — telling people why they shouldn’t not come. Instead, thoughtful messaging for the near future is critical, particularly in markets that were hurting before anyone ever heard of Superstorm Sandy.

As Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said during a November 2008 Wall Street Journal Forum, “You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.” Resort areas in the stricken region should seize the opportunity to highlight their strongest selling points and not just make their areas look dry because negative perceptions have already been developed even if there wasn’t much flood damage. And with all eyes on the area, now is the perfect time to show those eyes what they’re missing. At least the positive parts.

The consequences of this tragedy, imagined to be the costliest U.S. natural disaster to date, will go on for years. But world events have already pushed the situation off the front pages.

Do you think the issue won’t go away quickly? When was the last time you were glued to your TV to find out about conditions in Haiti, the consequences of the last election or even health care reform? We Americans have a notoriously short attention span and when the media moves on, so do we.

“You never want a serious crisis to go to waste.”

 

Of course you know that just because the situation doesn’t make front-page headlines anymore doesn’t mean that everything is better. Post-earthquake Haiti is still the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere and suffers from every possible ill of poverty, non-existent infrastructure, and aggressively corrupt leadership; it’s just that we’re not so actively involved anymore. Out of sight, out of mind is not just a glib saying; it’s an accurate description of our national attention deficit syndrome.

So maybe the cameras moving on to the next subject will be a good thing for coastal New Jersey’s tourism. After all, if pictures of flooded homes aren’t on our TV screens 24/7, visitors might forget about the storm and rebook their vacations. On the other hand, what happens if devastated neighborhoods are the last things consumers see before the cameras leave and there are no inviting images to change that perception?

The solution is not to tell people the reasons why they shouldn’t not come but instead to build compelling stories that connect with consumers’ emotions and build desire. I’m still waiting to see those campaigns from the affected destinations. For their sake, let’s hope they’re coming soon.