Our Reception has been Cooler, not Warmer

Unless you live under a rock, by now you have heard about the state’s shortest lived tourism campaign: “Cooler and Warmer.” And although social media was ablaze with opinions and commentary, that isn’t what this article will be about.  I’m not going to say what a graphic designer should or shouldn’t have done. I am vastly underqualified, but besides that, it isn’t my job to validate or invalidate someone’s work. (Which sure sounds weird for a theater critic to say, but in my mind, even if it’s a show I don’t particularly like, there is something beautiful and of value to it for someone. Art is art, and the Earth can’t survive without it!)

We’re all artists. From the theater artists, to the graphic designer, to the art teacher, the photographer, the filmmaker, the musician. Governor Raimondo spent $500,000 of taxpayer money to have a famous artist design a logo. Let that sink in … half a million dollars to an out-of-state artist, when we have so many artists here. So how does the Ocean State feel about being slighted?

Across the board, the artists I spoke to didn’t blame the graphic designer. “If you feel you have to go out of the state and have to pay that much to do it, my complaint isn’t with Mitch but with the fact that someone thought we had to,” local filmmaker Christian de Rezendes explains. “If you’re really going to interject positivity, trust and reliability into a community you say you believe in, when it comes time to rebrand the state, you go to that community and ask them, ‘Can we put this together?’.”

I have to be honest; there is something appealing about hiring a well-known artist. Who reading this hasn’t picked up merchandise with the famous I love NY logo? Who doesn’t appreciate the old DC bullet logo? Glaser has had a long illustrious career, and has made his mark on our culture. And yes, when you are that prestigious, you can set your price for your art, as you darn well should.  And thinking of the price, it is hard to determine if it was a fair price. Local graphic/web designer, Laura Sorenson CEO and founder of Atelier LKS explains, “To be sure, this is no paltry chunk of change. This money could unquestionably have been used more wisely. But to be fair to the design process of the agency in question, they undoubtedly spent a lot of time and care on research, concept visualization and each element of the branding and marketing campaign.”

And maybe this is part of what nagged at everyone huddled by their water coolers lately. Was this the only logo? Undoubtedly there are many stages to a project like this, and logistically we can’t expect to be in on every single stage of that plan. And as Ms. Sorenson continues to explain, “This agency very likely has many, many employees, and those employees need to get paid for their work – all of which is why I work for myself in my own business!”

But what are we really in need for here in RI? Prestige or the RI experience? Go anywhere in the country, mention a cabinet, a bubblah or say wicked, and you get some weird looks. These are the threads that weave the rich tapestry of Rhode Island culture. And who better to tell the story of us, than one of us?

How do you sell RI?

“It’s all about community,” de Rezendes explains. “We all know somebody, and that logo and video are so distant.” Think of it — while the rest of the world plays six degrees of separation, we play that on a daily basis based on people in our lives. Oh, I know her! Him? Yeah, he’s an old family friend/friend of a friend. Or based on who knows which famous Rhode Islander from James Woods to Viola Davis. We even lay claim to “Family Guy” creator Seth MacFarlane as he is a RISD Alumnus. As de Rezendes points out, we have native Rhode Islanders who could have put a familiar face on the campaign, rather than a faceless voice and a performance hall from Iceland. “Years ago Michigan used Jeff Daniels. Viola Davis? So there seems to be a real disconnect when you hear it — you’re listening to someone who grew up in California. It sounds like Tom Hanks in the Polar Express. Feels like a biblical epic. That’s why the video feels so foreign. Talk about the things in Rhode Island.”

The video’s foreign feel certainly wasn’t lost on Paswell or his “partner in crime” comedian Derek Moore, as within days the duo had produced a parody of the video using the same type of booming voice to show clips of RI that quickly went viral. Their intent with the video was to combine stereotypical seedy behavior with shots of West Warwick, and as Paswell points out, “Had it not been for the jokes, we would have had a great reel of beautiful film for the city.”

The theory here isn’t that the Raimondo administration should have found a starving artist, but someone from the community. Lilla Photography’s Kelly Werbecki agrees, “For the amount of money paid, the state could have given away first, second and third place prizes and those prizes could have been full tuition paid to a RI college held in a RI college bound fund. All RI money to all RI people.”

The idea of using our resources in a contest, similar to New Zealand’s contest for their flag, was a theme echoed by all of the artists I spoke to. Local comedian Dan Paswell thought that tapping into the local student base would have been a wise choice. “Aspects of the campaign to generate tourism could have easily been done for low-cost, if not zero-cost within the state at one of numerous colleges and universities. One being RISD.” And the glaring irony of RISD being left out was not lost on anyone. Sorenson pointed out, “Rhode Island is, in some ways, seen as the design incubator of our country (not least because RISD is located here), and although I firmly believe that great design can be done by anyone anywhere, this oversight implies either a puzzling lack of awareness or a sobering lack of confidence in what is a very robust design community in our little state.”

De Rezendes not only spoke of the obvious RISD, but other pockets of art we have in RI. “I would have shopped it around to schools and made it a contest.” And certainly in a state that has visual arts in virtually every school and graphic design quickly becoming a staple in various high schools, we could have looked to our students.

And now we are at square one. The campaign was quietly scrapped last Friday, with the logo being “gifted” to all of us to do with as we please. Of course, it was a little too late as many Rhode Islanders had already begun to use the logo for their own comedic purposes. From logos with slogans exclaiming our loves of coffee and hot wieners, to new satirical videos, we have for better or worse already owned this campaign. I hope the state learned an important lesson, albeit with the resignation of Betsy Wall, an embarrassing one. We have the talents, people and insight to sell our state to the world. We love Rhode Island, if we didn’t who among us would have batted an eyelash at a botched campaign? We have pride in being the smallest state with a large, rich catalog of artists working and learning here in the Ocean State. Here’s to the hope that we can proudly own the next campaign the Commerce Corporation and Economic Development rolls out with that special RI pride we have.

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