Last June, with a good deal of fanfare, the Chicago Convention and Tourism Bureau announced a bold new advertising campaign for the city. Bankrolled with money from a recently doubled tax rate on cab and bus rides from the airports, the bureau had put together a $6 million program that would open Chicago tourism offices overseas, establish a sports commission, and be the first "true branding effort," promoting Chicago as a "global visitor destination."
CCTB officials made the rounds of the local newscasts and showed up in print interviews touting the effort as "purposeful, strategic marketing" that would enhance Chicago's image and pay off in tourist spending, which they say amounted to $11.1 billion in 2010.
The whole thing would be hung on a great new slogan, which they were just then revealing: "Chicago: Second to None."
This was received with a nearly universal groan.
It wasn't just that nobody around here has heard that musty old phrase in the last three or four decades. Or that even then it was attached to snake-oil pitches, guaranteed to be, at the very least, a gross exaggeration. And it wasn't only that to work at all it depended on bringing to mind the tired second-city moniker the CCTB was trying to jettison.
It's that the first thing this slogan is likely to suggest now is Chicago's clueless, humiliating global moment of defeat in the final competition for the 2016 Olympics.
Though we weren't second there, it's true. And not third either.
It's odd if this didn't occur to Downtown Partners, the ad agency that came up with the campaign; its creative director, Jim Schmidt, was "a lead creative" in Chicago's Olympic bid.
But they also either didn't notice or didn't care that Chicago's little neighbor, Aurora, had hit on this slogan and been proudly identifying itself as "A City Second to None" for six years.
This month, when CCTB launched the first part of the program—a $1.8 million regional campaign targeted to potential visitors within a day's drive, and featuring "unprecedented television and digital advertising"— they weren't talking up Second to None.
CCTB communications director Meghan Risch said this week via e-mail that "'Chicago, Second to None' is a tone that is woven throughout various elements of the new brand. It is not a slogan. It is not a tagline (a tagline would be associated with our logo)."
But it's still there, on print ads and posters, sometimes paired with copy that also backs clumsily into what it's trying to say.
Like this boggler: "The city that's ranked number one in number one rankings."
Or, "If our restaurants get any more stars, they'll qualify as a galaxy."
"Few convention centers compare to McCormick Place. Come to think of it, none do."
"The only thing we're missing is a museum of museums."
The guy ultimately responsible for this is CCTB's CEO, Don Welsh, who was hired a year ago, at a base salary boosted to $390,000 (with the chance to pick up more in a performance bonus). Welsh had notable success at his previous job as head of the Indianapolis Convention and Visitors Association, where his two-and-a-half-year tenure coincided with major airport, convention center, and stadium expansion.
The CCTB is technically a private nonprofit organization, originally dedicated to promoting McPier (and not to be confused with the Chicago Office of Tourism and Culture, which is also ostensibly a private nonprofit). But nearly 80 percent of the CCTB's $18 million budget comes from the government, mostly through grants and airport departure taxes.
And that's where the Second to None slogan is exactly right. In a study conducted last year by the Global Business Travel Association Foundation of the worst U.S. cities for tourism taxes, Chicago was number one.