It took three years and a million-dollar ad campaign, but we won.
Barbara Brotman has conceded.
Brotman, a Chicago Tribune outdoors columnist, in 2010 took playful umbrage at a Montana Office of Tourism ad campaign in her city that had plastered some of the public transportation she takes with grand images of Big Sky Country.
It wasn’t fair, she wrote, to torment Chicago flat-landers with such scenic splendor while they were trapped riding the Red Line.
Even worse, she said, Montana had co-opted Chicago’s most famous street’s nickname for its ad campaign.
Actually, she said we stole “the Magnificent Mile.” There it was, she reported, on one of the images on the elevated train she took to and from work, under a photograph of a red rock bluff:
“Miles Magnificent,” it read, seemingly implying that if Chicago had one mile it was proud of, Montanans had thousands of them.
“They are trash-talking us, Chicago!” she howled as best one can with tongue planted firmly in-cheek. “Montana is thrusting its mountainous finger right in our Midwest faces, taunting us with its magnificent scenery and world-class outdoor recreation.”
Spoiling for a fight, she challenged her readers to step up with their own photographs documenting Chicago’s natural beauty.
Brotman called it a “civic campaign” she named “Take That, Montana!”
Well, if the notion that Chicago had anything in the natural beauty department remotely resembling Montana’s wasn’t the funniest thing former Missoulian city editor Michael Moore had ever heard, it must have ranked right up there.
Sure, the Windy City sits on a lake (Michigan) whose size alone makes any Montana body of water seem like a mud puddle.
But certainly our mountainous mud puddles had to be more scenic than anything Chicago could scare up. Moore issued his own challenge to Missoulian readers to battle back with their own photographs of the Treasure State, and we’d see which place was more beautiful.
So the two newspapers and their readers had some fun with it back in 2010.
“When it was over, Montana was still a scenic wonderland,” Brotman wrote, “but I maintained that my campaign made its point: Chicago has a quiet, subtle natural beauty, and Chicagoans stood ready to photographically defend it. We weren’t going to let our public transportation be turned into Montana’s billboard without a fight.”
Eventually, of course, the little rivalry between one big state and one big city died away.
Then, just a few days ago, on May 1, Barbara Brotman passed through the Chicago Transit Authority’s Clark/Lake “L” station on the way to work, as she always does.
Only on this morning, she found herself drowning in all things Montana. The Big Sky rained down on her, everyplace she looked.
Starting May 1, commuters who board or depart trains at the station – Chicago’s largest, and one of its busiest – have to first walk across Montana. The platforms are covered in giant maps of the state.
The station itself was suddenly plastered inside with 114 huge photographs of Montana scenery, some as large as 25 feet wide. The TV screens show Montana commercials when they aren’t displaying train station information. Two train cars that pull into the station are completely wrapped with an image of bison in Yellowstone National Park; their interiors are completely wrapped with shots from Glacier National Park.
Even the turnstiles, Brotman noticed, are wrapped in what she called “Montana-ana.”
Sarah Lawlor, communications manager for Montana’s Office of Tourism, says it’s the state’s first “crowd-sourced” social media campaign.
We even labeled our monthlong takeover of the Chicago facility. “Station domination,” we call it.
It’s part of a $2 million ad campaign in three cities the tourism office targets with monies generated by Montana’s 4 percent lodging facility use tax, otherwise known as the bed tax. The effort is to lure people here to contribute to one of the driving forces of Montana’s economy, tourism.
The other two cities – Seattle and Salt Lake City – are closer to Montana. Chicago is emerging as a key locale, Lawlor says, because of direct flights between it and us, and also because of train service on Amtrak’s Empire Builder.
Chicago is an expensive market, part of the reason half the $2 million is being spent there alone, but the “L” station isn’t the only place where Montana is pushing itself as a tourist destination in Chicago.
The state is also promoting itself on everything from billboards to the sides of buildings, “but nothing to the scale of what we’ve done at the ‘L’ station,” Lawlor says.
Those 114 photographs that have been blown up and displayed inside the station? None were taken by professional photographers. They’re all Montana vacation photographs that were submitted by tourists.
The idea is to show potential visitors to the state what actual visitors see and do, so that the potential ones “can re-imagine themselves in those locations,” Lawlor says.
Each photograph identifies the site, and the tourist who took it. To Brotman’s chagrin, it turned out that 25 percent of the 114 photographs of Montana on display were taken by people from the Chicago area.
The same ones who, she noted, “once stood shoulder-to-shoulder with me on the ‘Take That, Montana!’ barricades, proud defenders of the prairie faith, resolute resisters of the gaudy charms of towering mountains.”
They’d turned on her, Brotman decided, since she wrote this of Montana in 2010:
“Their snow-capped mountains? Kind of gaudy, don’t you think? Those alpine lakes? Look fake to me. And as for those bighorn sheep gazing down at us from the pictures, they need a new horn-do. Those flips went out in the 1960s.”
Brotman called three of her fellow Chicago-area-ans whose pictures are part of Montana’s ad campaign to ask them, essentially, what the hay? Why were they aiding and abetting the enemy?
Their answers, dutifully reported by Brotman in the Tribune’s May 6 edition, went something like this:
“It’s one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen,” Courtney Jones of Lincoln Square told her. “It’s such a magical adventure place. It’s just a life-changing experience.”
This, of course, tickles the Montana Office of Tourism. It may be spending a lot of bed tax money in a train station, but all the publicity it has generated in the Tribune has been free of charge.
“The moose are wetting themselves with laughter about now,” Brotman decided in her May 6 column.
“I have been well and truly vanquished,” she went on. “My nose will be rubbed in failure twice a day.
“I will console myself by grudgingly admitting that riding a train through images of snowy mountains and flower-carpeted meadows isn’t such a bad way to start the morning.”
Of course, the commute will give her time to contemplate, and one of Brotman’s first fantasies, she said, was Super Gluing a photo of a wildflower-studded prairie on the side of a bison and sending the animal meandering through the streets of Missoula.
“A mobile billboard,” Brotman wrote, “for Chicago wilderness glory. Take that, Montana.”