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Alien tourism ad stirs controversy

Instead of highlighting New Mexico's picturesque desert landscapes, art galleries or centuries-old culture, a new tourism campaign features drooling, grotesque office workers from outer space chatting about their personal lives.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Instead of highlighting New Mexico's picturesque desert landscapes, art galleries or centuries-old culture, a new tourism campaign features drooling, grotesque office workers from outer space chatting about their personal lives.

The 30-second TV spots — which lead in roundabout fashion to the tag line that New Mexico may be "the best place in the Universe" — are provocative, funny and bold.

But to increasingly vocal critics, the state-financed ad campaign is a possible threat to the well-being of the state's $5.1 billion tourism industry. In other words, while the ads may yield a chuckle or two, the joke is on New Mexico.

Critics say the less-than-cuddly, reptilian spacemen may be more apt to baffle or frighten away a tourist than reel one in.

"New Mexico has a lot to offer — we don't need to bring our standards down," said Ken Mompellier, head of the convention and visitors bureau in Las Cruces, the state's fast-growing second-largest city, which has refused to use the alien ads to bolster local tourism pitches, as it normally would.

"My first question would be: What does this campaign show of the things that we are known for?" Mompellier asked. "I look at this campaign and I don't see the fit. And the things I'm hearing from people, some of it is very negative."

Dale Lockett, president of the state's largest convention and visitors bureau in Albuquerque, addressed the issue in a speech at a statewide conference in October.

Lockett told the creators of the ads, Santa Monica, Calif.-based M&C Saatchi, that their handiwork, while innovative, appeals to the wrong audience. Why, Lockett wondered, was the state targeting its centerpiece ad campaign to a younger crowd when baby boomers have time and money to travel?

Rival neighboring states like Utah (with its "Life Elevated" campaign) and Colorado ("Let's Talk Colorado") appeal more directly to older, richer boomers in their tourism campaigns.

The ad makes no reference to New Mexico's most famous connection to aliens. In 1947, the U.S. military said a weather balloon crashed near Roswell in the desert, but legends persist that it was a UFO, and a small tourism industry has grown up in Roswell about the tale, complete with an annual festival and museums.

At a recent meeting of the state's tourism commission, M&C Saatchi representatives were urged to "soften up" the aliens in the ad.

Chris Stagg, a marketing executive at Taos Ski Valley who serves on the commission, said Saatchi's creative team might come back to the panel's next meeting with a "less harsh" version of the campaign.

Aliens are fine, he said, but do they need to be creatures "that look like they're going to suck your brains out?"

Creators and supporters of the campaign, which includes magazine print ads as well as the TV spots, got a boost when they learned the ads had won an Adrian Award honoring excellence in advertising and marketing.

The ads are the "envy of other tourism departments," said Stephen McCall, group account director for M&C Saatchi.

Defending the oddity of the campaign, McCall noted that New Mexico has unique challenges in competing in the hyper-competitive tourism market. New Mexico's main rivals — Arizona, in addition to Utah and Colorado — all have their own charms and more funding from their state legislatures. The ad budgets of those states each ranks in the top 10 nationally while New Mexico's budget ($2.9 million this fiscal year) lingers in the lower third.

Jonah Bloom, editor of Advertising Age, an industry magazine based in New York, said he sympathized with a state trying to get a big bang from a relatively small ad budget. "In a cluttered world you have to try to something different. When an alien pops up on your screen, you tend to be engaged," he said.

But after reviewing the alien ads online, he also said: "I can see why people in New Mexico might feel like this is hardly the best showcase of the state's greatest assets."

So far, the TV ads have aired in San Diego and Minneapolis, two cities with relatively affluent populations and direct-access flights to New Mexico. Print ads have run in magazines in the West and Midwest.

McCall said hits on the state's tourism Web site have risen since the campaign began. "There's nothing to suggest we have turned off any target (audience)," he said.

Yet the fate of the aliens remains up in the air, with the results of a study showing whether the ads actually make people visit critical to that decision, said Mike Cerletti, head of the tourism department.

"If that study shows what we think it's going to say, which is that the ad is effective, then obviously we are going to continue the campaign," he said.