Marketing puts Houston's flaws out front

Web site asks residents to explain why city is `worth it' despite faults

September 12, 2004|By Lianne Hart | Lianne Hart,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HOUSTON - When the air is thick with mosquitoes and humidity, it's hard to think kindly of this town. Civic boosters have tried for years, portraying Houston as a pro-business paradise while sidestepping the reality of living in a city built on a swamp.

An alternative to this approach came recently when a local marketing company began an independent online campaign to promote Houston as it is, blinders off.

"The flying cockroaches. The flooding. The no mountains," reads the ad, which goes on to list 17 more drawbacks before concluding that in spite of it all, "Houston. It's worth it." Residents are then asked to post their thoughts on why the city, unlovely and uncomfortable as it can be, is appealing all the same.

The point, said the ad's co-creator, David Thompson, is to acknowledge the worst and move on. "It sort of pulls the rug out from the easy place to go - How can you stand the heat? - and automatically takes you to a more meaningful conversation," he said.

Houstonians have responded so enthusiastically to the site (www.houstonitsworthit.com) that a technician reprogrammed the page to give people more room to write.

"I feel normal here. Maybe it is because I am imperfect like this city," one person wrote.

"The cleanest jail cells of any major metropolitan area," another wrote.

And then there was this analogy: "If Houston were a dog, she'd be a mutt with 3 legs, one bad eye, fleas the size of corn nuts and buck teeth. Despite all that, she'd be the best dog you'd ever know."

The campaign grew out of a conversation about a friend's magazine article on Houston's image, said Randy Twaddle, who helped conceive the ad. Twaddle is also Thompson's partner in a creative agency. "We had no intention of creating a slogan; it just came out."

The entrepreneurs decided to develop a Web site, then asked 100 friends and business associates to take a look. Word spread.

Although not sanctioned by an official visitors group, the concept has the support of influential Houston institutions such as museums, a children's advocacy group, and Hermann Park, which houses the city zoo and an outdoor theater. More than 20,000 caps, T-shirts and mugs have been ordered from the Web site, which in one day got more than 50,000 hits.

But the campaign has been spurned by the Houston visitor's bureau, Thompson said.

Patty Hubbard, a Travel Industry Association of America executive, said she can see why. "For a local audience to have fun with its faults, that's OK," Hubbard said. "But whether that would work for a potential visitor, I don't know. It could backfire."

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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