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The Mosquitoes, the Humidity . . .

A website lists the swampy city's faults and argues that living there is worth it. It's not a strategy official civic boosters embrace.

September 11, 2004|Lianne Hart | Times Staff Writer

HOUSTON — When the air is thick with mosquitoes and moisture, it's hard to get people 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.

But a local marketing firm recently took the blinders off and started an independent, online campaign to promote the real Houston, warts and all.

"The flying cockroaches. The mosquitoes. The traffic," reads the ad, which lists 17 more drawbacks before concluding that, in spite of it all, "Houston. It's Worth It."

The website then asks residents to post why the city, unlovely and uncomfortable as it can be, appeals to them 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 -- -- 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," wrote one person.

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

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 called ttweak. "We had no intention of creating a slogan, it just came out. It was one of those moments when we looked at each other and said, 'That gets to the bone of the issue.' "

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

Though unsanctioned 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 website, which in one day got over 50,000 hits.

But the campaign has been spurned by the Houston visitors bureau, Thompson said. "No one has called."

Patty Hubbard, a Travel Industry Assn. of America executive, said she could 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."

Gerard J. "Jordy" Tollett, president of the Greater Houston Convention & Visitors Bureau -- which has spent $75 million in the last 30 years to promote the city -- declined to be interviewed for this article. "He doesn't want to talk about it anymore," a spokeswoman said.

The last time Houston's slogan got much attention was in 1997, when Elyse Lanier --wife of former Houston Mayor Bob Lanier -- led a $5-million effort to boost the city's image. Her group's catchphrase: "Houston. Expect the Unexpected."

"When people ask me about Houston, I tell them about the theater district or the medical center," Lanier said. "I don't even acknowledge that cockroaches are alive.... It would never occur to me to talk about mosquitoes."

Lanier was calling from Malibu, where she was vacationing at the beach to escape the brutal Houston summer. She's the first to admit that Houston in August is miserable, but to build an ad campaign around the sweltering heat "would not be my approach," she said. "I prefer to focus on the positive, but I hope whatever they do works."

Houston has experimented with a number of slogans that have mostly led to mockery. During the 1980s oil bust, the city was "Houston Proud." When the economy began to recover, billboards proclaimed that "Houston's Hot." The current city slogan -- "SpaceCity. A Space of Infinite Possibilities" -- hasn't quite caught fire, either.

The only label that has stuck is the unofficial "Bayou City," which could describe nearly any town on the Gulf Coast.

For a slogan to be effective, it should have staying power, Hubbard said. "It has to be consistent and constantly used," she said. "If you keep changing it, you can't connect with the slogan or get an image of the destination."

The best-known slogans -- "I Love New York" and "Virginia is for Lovers"-- have been around for more than 25 years, she said.

Thompson and Twaddle hope their tagline eventually becomes so well known that it attracts visitors in the way Las Vegas's offbeat slogan -- "What happens here, stays here" -- helped lure 35.5 million tourists last year.

But if it doesn't spread beyond Houston, at least residents will have had a chance to rally and vent.

"This addresses a defensiveness that Houstonians may generally have about living here," Twaddle said. "It's as if people have been pent-up about it, like no one ever asked before why they're here.... Maybe we've touched a nerve."

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