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Shut Yer Piehole, St. Louis: We Got It Good!

To think that most of us didn't know any better


Let's face it: The main reason most human beings are in St. Louis is inertia -- 150 years ago, being located at the confluence of North America's two largest rivers meant something, but no longer. When was the last time somebody said, "Yeah, I'll overnight that to you right away. I'll put it on the first available barge"? During the Orange Bowl, FedEx talked about its air attack and ground attack, not its river attack. Sometime in the previous century, rivers lost out to railroads, and then on this side of 1900, trains were trumped by interstate highways, planes and the Internet. Silicon computer chips bring a much better price now than beaver pelts.

That brings us to St. Louis. No, wait -- we were already here. Maybe that's the point. The Regional Chamber and Growth Association has started an ad campaign, one that will be impossible to escape on local television and radio, trying to convince St. Louisans that this place ain't so bad after all -- as long as you compare it to someplace that's worse. Of course, by inference, the opposite is suggested. Even the title of the spot, "St. Louis -- We Got It Good," implies, well, that there are better places. But those other places cost more; or there are more people there, so it's more crowded; and the sports teams they have aren't nearly as good as our sports teams. So who needs mountains, beaches and temperate weather?

The commercials are a dose of promotional Prozac for St. Louis residents who are so downtrodden by living here they need an antidepressant ad to keep them from jumping off the Eads Bridge or, more predictably, from packing up a U-Haul and getting the hell outta this smaller, somewhat muted version of Detroit. Census results are coming out in March, and, aside from the usual trail of refugees from the city, St. Louis County this time looks to be losing population for the first time in memory. In part, this RCGA ad campaign is intended to stem the tide.

Dick Fleming, who, in the Bergermeister's words, is RCGA's "tubthumper," knows what to expect: "We'll continue to be an example of what happens when a community has a relatively flat regional growth and the core of the region is emptied out of population. That's been a 50-year pattern, and no one will be surprised that those numbers will be pretty sobering." He does point to a recent "modest" net growth in jobs that was "just marginally positive, but it broke a 30-year trend." Fleming knows the limits of what a barrage of free ads can do to change communal self-image. "We're not deluded that this is a panacea," he says.

One of the two TV ads that is airing -- and there will be a lot more -- features a guy who says he lives in a 500-square-foot New York City apartment for "only $1,900 a month. It's a steal." At the end of the commercial, the camera pans back and ... he's sleeping in a bathtub. So what's the message -- in St. Louis you don't have to use your bathtub as a couch? The other ad has two guys sitting at a bar, supposedly in Boston, yapping about their sorry-ass Red Sox, Patriots and Bruins. The one without a painted face notes that the Red Sox haven't won a World Series since 1918. For those of you who haven't thought about this in the last few days, the Cardinals last won the Series in 1982. So there.

The radio spots are a bit harder to follow. One features a "paracommute," wherein LA commuters are parachuting from a helicopter to cut the time it takes to get to work from two hours to 45 minutes. Another has a new Chicago resident telling a financial planner he doesn't "understand where all my money is going." The planner tells the client he needs to brush his teeth twice a day instead of three times a day to save 73 cents a month. It ends with the new Chicago resident being asked, "You want to live in Chicago? You want to live with the big boys?" The closing line is "In some cities, it's amazing how expensive everything from housing to toothbrushes can be. St. Louis -- we got it good." So even in a pro-St. Louis ad, there's the intimation that to compete with the "big boys" you have to migrate elsewhere, but if you choose not to compete, you can stay here and live more cheaply. Following that logic, a cave near Festus is even better.

Other catchphrases might have worked better with these ads. For the bathtub in New York City, it might have been "St. Louis -- it sucks, but the rent's cheap." For the radio ads, it might have been "St. Louis -- it sucks, but what an easy commute." Or "St. Louis -- it sucks, but you can have an extra toothbrush." For the boys in the bar, it could be "St. Louis -- it sucks, but how 'bout them Rams?" No, wait -- maybe they suck, too.

Whatever the point or the effect of these ads, most locals won't be able to avoid them. Though in effect they are well-done public-service announcements, unlike PSAs, they aren't running at 3 a.m. Already they've been on during prime-time network shows and during the evening and 10 o'clock newscasts. Karen Carroll, head honcho at KMOX (1120 AM) and one of the main brains behind the campaign, said at the kickoff: "The intent is for us to begin to create a campaign where all the broadcasters get behind it and we create a lot of positive conversations." How that kind of buzz could have any tangible result is unclear. Guess that means if folks say nice things to each other, they'll be less apt to move away.

Part of the "challenge," according to Fleming, is that about 70 percent of St. Louis residents have always lived here. In other words, they don't know any better. Maybe they don't know that real estate is so costly on the coasts and that in terms of expense and inconvenience, life is easier here. So maybe the compared-to-what approach is the safest good thing you can say about St. Louis. But that's sad. The reason real estate is high is supply and demand; there are reasons millions flock to Southern California -- it doesn't snow, hardly ever freezes and rains 14 inches a year; the desert, beach and mountains are nearby; and there's plenty to do.

St. Louis boosters make much of the "Best Sports Town" label, but there's a downside to that. It's a description of a place where too many people satisfy themselves with sitting and watching others do something exciting. Vicarious thrills and voyeurism have their limits.

But don't despair. More ads are on the way. They'll stress the upside of living here, focusing on the symphony, the zoo, the museums, the libraries and the parks, most of which are remnants of the city's bygone glory days but still better than comparable entities in most Sun Belt cities.

And in the end, the old line of advertisers applies: "Half of the money I spend on advertising is wasted; I just don't know which half." The airtime and "creative" work are donated; only out-of-pocket production costs are being covered by the RCGA's outlay of $50,000. It will be hard to gauge whether the campaign works.

David Molho, associate creative director at Schupp Co., who wrote the ads, isn't clear how that will be judged. "Other than everybody just being in a better mood, I don't know how they plan on measuring it," he says. "Everybody is laughing in the right parts and nodding in agreement. They're getting it. Generally the reaction's been very positive." Fleming thinks RCGA will conduct an "image attitude poll" at the end of the year to draw "attitudinal reactions," seeing whether the ads were seen and whether they had any effect.

Molho says most of the creative and postproduction work was done in St. Louis, but because of a tight timetable, the actual filming was done in Los Angeles. "And if we had used St. Louis talent, people might have recognized them and it might have seemed less authentic," says Molho. "If you had seen the Schnucks guy in one of these, you might have said, "Wait a second' or "I've seen that guy in a Becky the Carpet Queen ad.' It might not have had the veracity it seems to have."

Maybe it's fitting that commercials boosting St. Louis were filmed in Los Angeles using California actors talking about New York City, Boston and Chicago. What did you expect? Local talent? Molho says the production companies here were booked, so the ads had to be filmed on the Left Coast. But for the ad in the bar, local casting couldn't have been a problem. It's not as if they couldn't find two fat guys in St. Louis sitting on barstools bitching about their sports teams. At least in the spot that pokes fun at how expensive it is to live in New York City, the actor is from St. Louis -- a Florissant native who went to LA to pursue his bright-lights, big-city dreams. Maybe, if he sees the ad, he'll come back home. RCGA could find him a cheap two-family flat.

Campaign managers and press secretaries are being hired and a barbecue restaurant is about to open -- the March 6 mayoral primary fast approaches.

Mayor Clarence Harmon, oft ribbed about Rory Riddler, his campaign "consultant" who is also a St. Charles city councilman -- oh, the irony -- went east this time to hire his campaign manager, Dean Levitan. Levitan worked the '99 mayoral race in Philadelphia, running the campaign of Democratic primary candidate John White, who lost to John Street, and then helping Street in the general election. Both Street and White are African-Americans. Street, a 19-year veteran of the City Council, won the mayor's race by fewer than 2 percentage points. In September, Levitan worked on the U.S. Senate bid of Rebecca Yanisch in Minnesota, who lost to Mark Dayton, an heir to the Target fortune.

To deal with the Fourth Estate, Aldermanic President Francis Slay hired Ed Rhode, who worked for Rep. Richard Gephardt for seven years as a local press spokesman. For Slay, any linkage with the Gephardt camp is perceived as a good thing. Former Mayor Freeman Bosley has acquired the services of Harold Crumpton, formerly of the state Democratic Coordinating Committee and a Southwestern Bell executive, as his campaign manager.

And in the most substantive act of the last week of mounting mayoral mania, the Boz took time off the campaign trail to appear before the Commercial Committee of the Skinker-DeBaliviere Community Council. He was pumping up the proposed opening of Big Jake's Memphis Style Restaurant, down the street from the Pageant. The plan is to renovate the closed McDonald's at 5800 Delmar Blvd., just east of the MetroLink stop at the old Delmar Station for the Wabash Railroad, and reopen it as a sit-down/drive-through barbecue restaurant.

James Armstrong is the managing partner and will run the show, with Bosley as investor. Freeman says that once Big Jake's opens, his main involvement will be if anybody wants to meet with him, they'll have something to eat. Depending on what happens in the next seven weeks, they can either cater the ribs to Room 200 at City Hall or just reserve a booth in the corner.

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