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Kidnapped in the city? St. Louis' new tourism campaigns stirs up Chicagoans

by Carly Syms
May 29, 2012


Carly Syms/MEDILL

Brian Hall, chief marketing officer at the St. Louis CVC, said his organization opted to plaster the ads all over specific trainlines and stations to best reach their demographic.

A Chicago kidnapping has residents on edge and all we know about the missing man comes from cryptic postings on CTA trains, directing riders to social media tools and his website.

Those concerned about the man’s safety can piece together clues to help solve his disappearance. And when they do, it becomes clear he isn’t in any danger at all.

He’s visiting St. Louis.

The new ad campaign on Chicago’s CTA trains, known as the Kidnapped Chicagoan, comes from the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission and is part of an effort to attract young professionals to the city, said Brian Hall, the organization’s chief marketing officer.

“This is an unmarketing campaign, very untraditional by being approachable, funny, interesting and engaging,” Hall said.

The advertisement strategy is intelligent, according to Terry Clark, a marketing professor at Southern Illinois University, especially when you consider that a person sees an estimated 3,000 ads daily.

“Once your ad is in position, the battle is how you create interest,” Clark said. “You do it with humor, with interesting elements. What they are doing is deliberately trying to shock people a little bit, and the shock is useful.”

But not all marketing experts see it that way.
Thomas Hustad, professor of marketing at Indiana University, said using kidnappings to advertise could be viewed as manipulative.

“This particular theme capitalizes on the use of media in public transit for real alerts, so that people who see this do not screen it out as a commercial message,” Hustad said. “Their defenses are down, and this is a big part of the ethical issue that disturbs me about this.”

Hustad said the issue is playing with people’s awareness of alerts for kidnapped children or missing adults.

“It would clearly be terrible if this sort of advertising grew and reduced society’s responses to those valid attempts to locate people,” he said.
“Within the ad itself, there is nothing unethical that I have spotted,” he said. His problem comes before that: “The opening premise that creates participation is false and manipulative, drawing on citizens' goodwill and desire to help others in need.”

Some El riders agree.
Michelle Sitrick, 23, of Schaumburg, said she found the ad a little strange, but it also got her thinking – proof that the campaign is memorable.

“It was a little weird to me because it seemed strange that they would talk about kidnapping as a form of advertising,” Sitrick said. “You’re not allowed to scream ‘Fire’ when there is none, so it’s a little strange to me that you can pretend someone got kidnapped when they didn’t when it’s a serious issue.”

But Hall said the advertisements are clearly meant to be fun, and have generated more than 2,000 voicemails.

“This is a highly viral grassroots marketing campaign around this premise of a faux kidnapping and it’s very much tongue-in-cheek,” Hall said. “We have headlines that read, ‘One minute he’s here, the next minute—poof he’s gone!’”

Most experts agree placement on the El was strategically beneficial. Kenneth C. Wisnefski, founder of WebiMax, an online and social media advertising company in Chicago, said audience engagement is key.
“Advertisers need to leverage the smartphone,” Wisnefski said. “When people are on the transit systems, the majority of the time they have their smartphone in their hand. Crafting your advertisement around smartphone use is my best tip. This not only provides engagement, but instantaneous website traffic.”

St. Louis’ tourism office has done that, directing its audience to a variety of locations, all accessible from the palm of the audience’s hand.

“We wanted to create a sense of mystery and intrigue to convince the young professional they should check this out online using their smartphone,” Hall said.

But Hustad said he would like the ad campaign to be a little more truthful upfront.

“Overall, I would have no problem with this if it was accurately portrayed as a game or other form of recreational challenge,” he said. “It is novel. There are a few levels to it. In that sense, it can be engaging for a time.”

And that, Clark argues, is the ultimate goal of advertising.

“‘Manipulate’ is too strong of a word,” he said. “Are they trying to persuade me? Of course. And what’s wrong with that?”