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Regional Interests

‘This is Portland’ ad campaign draws mixed reactions

Aerial view of Burnside Bridge March 20, 2020.
Aerial view of Burnside Bridge March 20, 2020.

Readers of The New York Times’ Sunday print edition couldn’t help but notice a full-page ad in the paper last weekend that began with the sentence “This is Portland.” It goes on to say, “We’re a place of dualities that are never polarities. Two sides of the same coin that keeps landing right on its edge.” The ad appeared in a few other newspapers as well and it’s part of a Travel Portland campaign, designed to promote tourism in the city. It has elicited mixed reactions among Portlanders.

We dig into the ad campaign — what it says and what it doesn’t say — and the larger effort to rehabilitate Portland’s reputation. Our guests are Portland State University Associate Professor Lisa Bates, Portland Mercury News Editor Alex Zielinski and Amy Lewin, vice president of strategic communications for the Portland Business Alliance.

This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Geoff Norcross: Welcome to Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Geoff Norcross in for Dave Miller. So I was digging into the New York Times on Sunday, flipping through the front page and right there on page A-7 was a whole page ad about my city. It begins with ‘This is Portland’ and then it goes on to say that yeah, things are a little crazy in the city right now, but this is who we are. It’s good and you should come visit. Travel Portland spent over $100,000 on that ad in the New York Times and three other major newspapers. It’s the first part of a months-long campaign to encourage folks to come visit and today we’re going to dig into the campaign, what it says and what it doesn’t say and the larger effort to rehabilitate Portland’s reputation. We’re talking with Lisa Bates, Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State, Alex Zielinski, news editor with the Portland Mercury and Amy Lewin, Vice President of Strategic Communications for the Portland Business Alliance. Welcome all of you. It’s good to have you.

Lisa Bates: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

Geoff Norcross: I think I should read this whole thing. It’s not too long, but I should get it out there just so we can know what we’re talking about and then I’ll ask questions of all of you. So here’s the text. “This is Portland. You’ve heard a lot about us lately. It’s been a while since you’ve heard from us. Some of what you’ve heard about Portland is true. Some is not. What matters most is that we’re true to ourselves. There’s a river that cuts through the middle of our town. It divides the east and west, but it’s bridged over and over again, 12 times to be specific. And that’s kind of a great metaphor for this city. We’re a place of dualities that are never polarities, two sides to the same coin that keeps landing right on its edge. Anything can happen.

We like it this way. This is the kind of place where new ideas are welcome, whether they’re creative, cutting edge or curious, at first glance. You can speak up here, you can be yourself here. We have some of the loudest voices on the West Coast. And yes, passion pushes the volume all the way up. We’ve always been like this. We wouldn’t have it any other way. We have faith in the future. We’re building it every day. The only way we know how, by being Portland. Come see for yourself. Love, Portland. Okay, there’s a lot there. But I would like to ask everybody around the table what your first thoughts were when you first read that. Lisa Bates, let’s start with you.

Lisa Bates: Well, like yourself, I saw this in the physical paper on Sunday. Read it out loud several times to the household and honestly, I felt a little bit confused. Who is the we? Who was the you? I don’t have a lot of clarity about the intentions, but it felt like a pivot in some ways away from some of the, not just 2020, but over the past several years reckonings that we’ve been doing in Portland with understanding that there are actually multiple ‘we’s’ who have experienced the history and experience current Portland very differently, into a little bit more of that glossed over Portlandia vision, which, I guess it’s a tourism ad. So perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised by that.

Geoff Norcross: Perhaps, and there’s a video that is very Portlandia and we’ll get into that as well. Amy Lewin, what were your first thoughts when you read the ad?

Amy Lewin: Well, you know, I actually had a link to the video before I saw the ad in the paper. I saw on Twitter folks were posting and noticed in my inbox a link to the video and part of my work this year has been to try to contextualize what’s happened as we have been a community reckoning with a lot of different challenges and it’s been a hard year. And I think if you are the tourism agency for Portland, which Travel Portland is, they’re not Portland’s PR agency, they’re not in charge of the Portland brand. They are in charge of encouraging people to be here and to come and visit. And it’s what I saw in this is something that was articulating all the different moments we’ve had in how we talk about Portland, what it means to be in Portland, why we all chose to be in this place, live here, call this place home. And I think at the end of the day it started a conversation, which I actually really appreciate, because I think we have the luxury of this moment in June 2021 to be having a real conversation about what is Portland, what does Portland wannabe? How does Portland want to be better? How do we become a city that recovers where there’s no spin, but we’re really authentically talking about all those pieces and I think this ad, though it’s not a campaign, is a moment to start the conversation. I think it connected me to some of the work that I’ve been trying to articulate with teams across the city this past year

Geoff Norcross: Alex Zielinski, first impressions from you.

Alex Zielinski: Like you and Lisa, I saw this for the first time in print, taking up an entire full page in the New York Times and I think I was struck mostly by the term around polarities and dualities and the way it was talking about the city that is divided by a river, but not really divided. And it just seemed for me, as someone who follows city politics pretty closely and the news it seemed to vary in contrast with what we as a city, had just seen in the previous week, which was: 50 members of the Portland Police Bureau’s Rapid Response Team, which responds to protests, stepping down, kind of in protest, to one of their officers being indicted for assaulting a member of the public during a protest. And that paired with the alarming kind of homeless crisis in Portland, the affordable housing crisis, these issues that are really divisive and have divided neighborhoods and I know that’s not what a tourism agency hopes to bring into the conversation, but it felt, in contrast with the city that I live in, in some ways, not that we should embrace being divided, but there are real polarities here that I feel like are worth making space for.

Geoff Norcross: And you Alex, have been covering the protest for racial justice from the start and you have seen those polarities manifest themselves sometimes violently at times. I’m wondering how you feel about that line and whether it even really tells the truth about life in the city right now.

Alex Zielinski: I do think that there’s nuance to all these conversations that are going on right now and the conversations that were sparked by this ad campaign around the city’s recovery and kind of where we’re at. But it does seem to try to be kind of hastily repairing the clear division that was on the front page of the New York Times from Portland this year and on national TV. And people- the nation- is was very aware of what Portland has looked like this past 18 months or so. And I think, watering that down to us being passionate and that we can get really loud- I don’t know if that’s enough to categorize where things are right now as a city and where things have been.

Geoff Norcross: Amy Lewin, you said, you don’t look at this as a campaign, you look at it as a moment. But Travel Portland is using this effort, whatever you want to call it, to try to get people to come back and to stay in our hotels and in our short term rentals. Do you think it will be successful?

Amy Lewin: Let’s be honest, tourism keeps us as a city going in so many ways, right? It’s critical to economic recovery and June, July, and August are beautiful times to come visit Portland. We’ve got to start the conversation and to be boldly trying to do that in earnest at this moment is the right moment to do that. And if you think about the impact to the hospitality industry this year, it’s massive. 10,000 people lost their jobs this year in the hospitality industry. The visitor’s spend in our economy is massive. And if you think about that in the sense of when someone comes to Portland, they’re shopping at a small local boutique, they’re getting cute clothes, fun food, eating out, wines and accessories. Like there’s this coming to Portland moment that we still need as we navigate recovery. And I was thinking about this in the sense of whatever challenges our city is facing- and there are a multitude of challenges, we’ve got to start somewhere. And part of that is just stitching together what it is to be here in Portland and how do we start the conversation learning why we love Portland again.

Geoff Norcross: I got to jump in here because the timing is suspect because we haven’t fully opened up yet. There are still very visible homeless camps, protests are still happening. Should Travel Portland maybe have waited a bit?

Amy Lewin: Their job is to start a conversation about: where are you going? And I don’t know about you, but my family has been having a lot of conversations lately about what are we doing next month? Are we going to go on a road trip? And their job is to attract people back into our city, our region. And so this is a way to start that conversation and get people thinking and remembering about what makes the city special. It is separate from all those other things, Geoff.

And yet it is that moment where we as a city are in that ‘Yes, and’ moment, right? Yes. Do I want to go out and be safely engaged in my neighborhood and maybe have a family member come visit? Yes. And is that complicated? And are there challenges around that? Yes. But that’s part of why we all chose to live in a city like this.

Geoff Norcross: Lisa Bates, you mentioned the accompanying video and there’s a link to it on our website, OPB.org/thinkoutloud. It hits a lot of the Portland things. It hits the craft brews, it hits ice cream, it hits the natural beauty that we can hike through, just the creative culture that we have here, but it seemed to be centering black voices and faces of color. I’m wondering if you noticed that?

Lisa Bates: Oh, I noticed it right away. First thing I said was, this is a black person speaking. And it does, it shows a kind of diversity that is, on the one hand, very disproportionate to representation in the city and I celebrate that all the people of color who are in the ad have great and cool things going on. It’s a very particular kind of person. It’s still fitting into a very kind of Portland look and vibe, but if I may, I’d like to say something. I think it’s actually very disingenuous to describe this as merely a moment and merely a tourism campaign because the idea of reputational recovery of the Portland brand, I think this ad campaign and travel bruin is a thin end of the wedge to a much larger conversation that has been prompted not only by entities like P. B. A. and other real estate development firms and consultancies, but it’s very much part of the city’s official strategy and conversation coming out of the Mayor’s office and coming out of Prosper Portland, that there is a reputational and rebranding effort as a significant part of our public economic development strategy and I think that rebooting this imagery and this very particular kind of Portland, sure it’s it’s a bit more diverse in the faces and the hues, but it feels very business as usual in terms of what is being described as authentically part of the Portland scene and the Portland economy.

Geoff Norcross: Let me introduce everybody else again, if you’re just tuning in, we’re talking about that ‘This is Portland’ campaign by Travel Portland and we’re talking with Lisa Bates, Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State, Amy Lewin, Vice President of Strategic Communications for the Portland Business Alliance and Alex Zielinski, who is the news editor at the Portland Mercury. Alex, I want to ask you, for someone who has been fed a diet of cable news and has seen image after image of dumpsters on fire and police in riot gear and tear gas everywhere over the past year, do you think this ad campaign is going to change their mind?

Alex Zielinski: That’s a good question, I am definitely not the target audience for answering it, but I definitely do not think this speaks to the kind of folks who have been watching maybe the more conservative media coverage of Portland. Then again, I don’t think those folks are necessarily reading the New York Times. I think this is more directed towards middle of the road liberals who maybe supported the idea of Black Lives Matter at the beginning of the protests and then became kind of jaded by it when they saw how different protesters would respond to them. It might change. I think Amy mentioned that this is speaking to folks who might be considering their travel plans for the next month or so. But I also think it’s probably speaking to folks who plan conventions and who can bring the city a ton of money and folks who work for larger businesses that might have a retreat or some kind of pop-up thing in Portland and trying to show them that we’re very conscious of the way that our city has been presented in media by penning this very self aware seeming kind of letter or poem or however you treat this.

Geoff Norcross: Well, to me, it just seemed like the feeling I get when I have those conversations with friends and family back east. I’m sure everybody in this conversation right now has had the same conversations when they come to you and say what the heck is going on in Portland? And you’ve got to tell them, Yeah, it’s bad, but it’s manageable. You know, life goes on. We’re figuring this out.

Lisa Bates: What’s up though? I think I have those conversations, but they come from a very different perspective and perhaps it has to do with my politics, but it certainly has to do with being a black person, that the images aren’t, it’s not the Tucker Carlson media diet of out of control Antifa, it is what’s going on with your cops? It is what’s with the tear gas? It’s how is this city that we thought was thriving, allowing people to be in tent encampments? Why aren’t they housing people? So they’re seeing the same images and they’re having the same negative reaction, but from a completely different perspective. And that’s not addressed by this ad. It’s not addressed by what we’re actually doing as the city.

Amy Lewin: Well, let’s be honest here, that’s what the tourism agency needs to be doing right now? I think everyone has a role to play in Portland’s recovery, right? We all have different roles to play in that space. It is true to say it has been a hard year, our economy has suffered and we’ve got to take that first step. There is no spin to recovery. There’s no spin to the challenges our city has faced. And yet we’ve all got to be stepping in and asking ourselves that question, How do I make Portland better? How do I make our city get to that next step? And I have to tell you, if you look at the negativity that has been online about Portland this year, it is astounding compared to any other city, it is simply astounding. And so I think the question I would like to ask for those who are really thinking deeply about Portland’s reputation and Portland’s brand is: how can you make it better? How can you be a part of rising to the occasion of identifying those beautiful moments that are still happening on blocks and still acknowledge the challenges we’re facing. It’s a transparent, earnest conversation, we all need to be staying engaged in that. But really doing it in a more positive direction would be my encouragement because Lord knows we need it.

Geoff Norcross: And Lisa, Amy brings up a point here which is travel. Portland has a role here and that is to bring visitors back into town for hotel stays and short term rentals. So given that that’s their whole job, is it fair to scrutinize them in this way?

Lisa Bates: Again, this is not only about Travel Portland. We can talk about this ad as Travel Portland, but the project entitled reputational recovery and rebranding as an economic development project is not only a tourism project, it is a live activity space of the city of Portland’s entire public economic development engine and its private sector, including the Portland Business Alliance. And that is a conversation, not only about beautiful moments and earnestness, but that is a conversation about things like pushing houseless people out of spaces of public view. That is a conversation about bringing back policing units that have enacted racist violence against black people and brown people here…

Amy Lewin: I just want to be really clear: the reputation recovery and rebranding action table is not committed to policy change. It’s committed to figuring out how we learn to work together in talking about the city that we all are here and call home. And I just want to reframe it, that it’s a community based conversation and everyone’s voice is welcome at the table. And so I’m sure Geoff, we’re running out of time to go deep into that, but I just want to acknowledge that faces, I think, an important conversation.

Lisa Bates: It would be great for that conversation, Amy, to quickly ask the question of whether we can recover our reputation by actually acting to change the things that are negative to actually house folks on the street. FEMA gives 100% reimbursement for housing unhoused people in hotels during the pandemic, for actually addressing police violence, actually creating a sustainable and regenerative economy. That not just a few people of color can participate in an ad campaign, but that genuinely support all of us to participate and thrive in.

Amy Lewin: And I’m pleased to share that many, many, many organizations, not only private sector but public agencies, partners, community based organizations are at the table right now talking about that. What does recovery mean? What does solving our most pressing problems mean for our city? And that is beyond a tourism conversation. But Lisa, it is certainly a big, heavy conversation that I have to say is astounding to me how many people are willing to engage in that difficult but productive and thoughtful conversation.

Geoff Norcross: Alright, there’s clearly a lot here and I’m sure there will be much more to say on this topic, but for the time being, thank you all for sharing your thoughts about this campaign. I’m looking forward to continuing the conversation later.

Lisa Bates: Thank you so much.

Amy Lewin: Thanks for having us.

Geoff Norcross: That is Lisa Bates, Associate Professor of Urban Studies and Planning at Portland State University, Amy Lewin, Vice President of Strategic Communications for the Portland Business Alliance and Alex Zielinski, news editor for the Portland Mercury.

If you’d like to comment on any of the topics in this show or suggest a topic of your own, please get in touch with us on Facebook or Twitter, send an email to thinkoutloud@opb.org, or you can leave a voicemail for us at 503-293-1983. The call-in phone number during the noon hour is 888-665-5865.

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