"Will It Play in Peoria" brings Hallmark Channel to town

John Sharp

Springfield can’t claim it. Rockford or Bloomington isn’t asking it, either.

Not even St. Louis or Chicago have their names within a simple question that, since the days of vaudeville in the early 1900s, serves as a barometer for typical American values.

"Will It Play in Peoria?" is a question unique to the River City and has been uttered by politicians, marketers, actors, and others for generations in an attempt to gauge the pulse of the country.

"There aren’t many cities across the country that have a common saying that incorporates the name of the city," Harry Fisher, an associate professor of business administration at Eureka College, said Tuesday. "I would think there is some opportunity to capitalize on that."

That has happened lately. Thanks mostly to the mid-America image the question brings to mind, The Hallmark Channel is hosting the kick off of a new movie channel Wednesday at the Civic Center.

Hallmark’s choice of Peoria comes after CNBC’s "The Big Idea With Donny Deutsch" shot segments twice in February at Cyd’s Gourmet Kitchen in which Peorians tested products to see if they would play in Peoria. The show played up the ageless concept of Peoria as one of the best test markets in the country.

While this unofficial city slogan enjoys renewed attention from cable TV, some local officials think it’s time for Peoria to embrace it a bit more. Over time, the question has caused some Peorians to groan that it feeds a perception of a community that is merely average.

"‘Will It Play in Peoria?’ still has some real good legs on the national scene," at-large City Councilman Ryan Spain said. "Some (in Peoria) are tired of the slogan but the brand strategy isn’t for the citizens of Peoria. It’s marketing the city of Peoria to external audiences."

Brent Lonteen, president and CEO of the Peoria Area Convention and Visitors Bureau, said his organization, in the midst of creating a marketing direction, will include the slogan.

"Since I’ve been in this position, I’ve heard nothing but people in the street and at the grocery store and (other) people saying, ‘why don’t you play up that Will It Play in Peoria? thing,’" Lonteen said.

He said at national trade shows, people will walk up to him and recognize Peoria two ways — as the home of Caterpillar Inc. and "Will It Play in Peoria?"

"You have to play off your strengths," Lonteen said.

The bureau isn’t the only entity that wants to utilize the slogan. Spain said as part of a forthcoming regional branding process, the Heartland Partnership — where he is employed as a public policy manager — could include the slogan.

Roberta Parks, senior vice president with the Peoria Area Chamber of Commerce, and Debbie Ritschel, general manager at the Civic Center, both predict the slogan will be utilized more, possibly in the regional branding effort.

"You don’t throw the baby out of the bath water," Ritschel said. "Here is a slogan … we should be spiffing it up for the YouTube generation."

From a business standpoint, the use of the slogan was at its recent height in the 1970s, when corporations utilized the city as a test market. By the 1980s, however, tough economic times endured and fewer turned to Peoria for product testing.

In 2004, American City Business Journals ranked Galveston, Texas, as the top test market community in the country. A year earlier, The Acxiom Corp. of Little Rock, Ark., named Albany, N.Y., as the top consumer test market.

Nancy Matheis, president of Scotti Research Inc., said New Jersey is a high test market area and that Peoria, while once in the top five, is more in the top 25 when it comes to test market locations. She said within the past year, Proctor & Gamble has conducted research in Peoria for diaper products.

"We still have research here, but it’s not like it once was," Matheis said. "But the slogan is still out there."

John Sharp can be reached at (309) 686-3282 or