Mass. Market: 2009’s quirky campaigns, zany ventures and lousy ideas
What a long, strange trip this year has been. We started out in the deepest depths of a recession, and we wrapped up December with the fragile makings of a recovery.
In the meantime, the federal government bribed us to buy all sorts of shiny things like cars and houses, while the tax-happy state Legislature gave us an incentive to lay off the booze and curb the restaurant trips. We watched a record-setting sprint in a Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. Filene’s Basement was sold to a rival chain at a bargain-basement price. Massachusetts’ own Barney Frank advocated for online gambling while railing against executives who gambled with taxpayer dollars. We lifted up the TARP, and we’re not sure if we liked what we found there.
But a year around here can also be defined by zany ventures, unusual ad campaigns and downright lousy ideas. I’ll recap some of those for my final column of 2009. Here’s hoping you all can stay shovel-ready in 2010.
Best growth industry in a recession: With unemployment rising quickly at the time, I can’t say I was surprised that the Foxy Lady drew more than 150 people to its job fair in March as the gentleman’s club sought to fill 30 positions in Providence, Brockton and New Bedford. It was reassuring to know that at least someone was hiring.
Most unlikely partnership: Pawtucket-based Hasbro and Deerfield’s Yankee Candle teamed up to create scented puzzles as a new gift item for Yankee Candle stores. But why stop there? I’d like to see a game of Battleship that blasts me with a waft of salty air or a Candy Land that actually smells like the inside of a chocolate shop. That said, Yankee Candle should feel free to leave Operation back in the box.
Strangest media crusade: Yes, I know that Downtown Crossing is starting to look like a bombed-out Dresden, what with the giant Filene’s block rotting away under a pile of grime and unfulfilled dreams. But I was still surprised by The Boston Globe’s answer to this urban black hole: Open up Washington Street to auto traffic. Yeah, that will do the trick. Chase all the remaining pedestrians and street vendors away, or at least shove them to the side, to make way for suburbanites who haven’t been down to Downtown Crossing since Jordan Marsh was still open. Maybe someone got the hint: There was a flurry of stories and columns in the spring, and then the subject seemed to disappear from the pages of the Globe.
Strongest sign that the gentrification of Southie is complete: Fancy bistros and white-collar offices are steadily replacing the seafood shacks and warehouses that long gave the South Boston waterfront its color. But I never thought I would see the day that Louis Boston, arguably the most expensive clothier on Newbury Street, would sign a lease to move to Southie’s Fan Pier. Either the gentrification of this former working class neighborhood is finally complete, game over, or the recession really has dampened demand for $1,000-plus Proenza Schouler dress boots.
Most annoying marketing catchphrase: Comcast pledged to provide a passport to the “World of More.” As a communications company, I’ve got to believe Comcast could come up with a more precise way of telling consumers that it was switching its remaining analog channels to digital signals.
Most annoying marketing catchphrase (runner-up): The “Triple Play” was a clever way for Comcast to advertise its bundled package of phone, Internet and cable TV services while appealing to a sports-happy customer base. Sorry, Verizon, but we’re still wondering what kind of sport features a “Quad Play.”
Strangest use of federal stimulus dollars: The Menino administration bragged that it landed a cool $1.3 million in federal funds for a “solar evacuation route.” Essentially, it’s a fancy way of saying that some traffic lights and other electrical systems along Boston’s Washington Street will have a solar-powered backup. I guess Tom Menino deserves kudos for persuading the folks in Washington to overlook the fact that the sun shines around here maybe 25 or 30 days a year.
Most effective tourism attraction: The organizers of the Big E in West Springfield partly attributed the record turnout this year to crowds who flocked to the fair to get a bite of a Craz-E Burger. In case you missed it, this ode to American excess is just like a regular bacon cheeseburger – except instead of a bun, it’s sandwiched between two halves of a grilled doughnut dripping with glaze. More than 16,000 of these 1,500-calorie burger/doughnut hybrids were sold during the 17-day fair, thanks in part to the reporters who understandably attended the Big E to taste this wonderful creation for themselves.
Most gruesome bankruptcy proceeding: Innovative Spinal Technologies of Mansfield shut down in February and filed for Chapter 7, leaving behind the usual items as part of the liquidation. And some items that weren’t so usual – such as nine human corpses and a few empty cadaver boxes with signs of blood on the exterior.
Strongest sign that the recession wasn’t over yet: More than 10,000 people trekked to the Southern New Hampshire University campus for a job fair in April, looking for employment and jamming traffic into Manchester. With all the commotion, I half-expected the Foxy Lady to have a table there.
Most over-the-top celebration of a business opening: Sure, it’s not every day when a new business opens in Boston’s theater district, let alone a fancy new hotel. So the developers behind the new W hotel deserve some props. But shuttling employees to work in October on “disco trolleys?” Hiring a Joan Rivers impersonator to interrogate the W “talent” as they traverse the “purple carpet?” Of course, it was inevitable that Blue Man Group would make an appearance.
Strangest protest: Drivers in the Fenway area on Oct. 29 might have thought they stumbled across some bizarre Northeastern University Halloween celebration when traffic was stopped by zombies running out of the underbrush. Not so. It was just your everyday rally for public-funded health care, at the doorstep of the Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts headquarters. Because nothing says health care reform like a pack of roaming zombies.
Most Scrooge-like move by a big corporation: Hyatt workers in Boston and Cambridge were reportedly more than happy to help when the bosses asked them to train some people who worked for a hotel contractor. That is, until the Hyatt employees learned that they would soon be out of a job and had been training their less-expensive replacements. The plight of the “Hyatt 100” and the subsequent boycotts emerged as organized labor’s cause celebre for 2009.
Most Scrooge-like move by a big corporation (runner-up): Working for a big bank has its downsides, as the employees who chipped in to buy a modest-sized, artificial Christmas tree for a Citizens branch in Quincy found out. The workers were told to move the tree to the break room, ostensibly because it violated some vague policy requiring all branches to have a consistent appearance. It turned out there was some flexibility after all: The bank’s management promptly reversed its decision after the Christmas Tree Incident was publicized by The Patriot Ledger.
Most effective marketing campaign: Who would have thought that TD Bank Financial Group would turn to Willy Wonka for inspiration? The latest renaming of the arena now known as the TD Garden was accompanied by the distribution of 19,600 chocolate bars (one for every seat in The Gahden), including five with golden tickets inside the labels that provided free passes to Bruins and Celtics games for the winners.
Least effective marketing campaign: As the transition from TD Banknorth to TD Bank approached in New England, the Canadian parent company started running TV ads here in which Kelly Ripa would try to assure a nervous Regis Philbin that everything was going to go smoothly. Too bad no one warned Regis and Kelly about all the computer snafus that would plague TD Bank customers after the September switchover.
Least effective way to badmouth a competitor: Portfolio manager Margaret Greer made a number of mistakes after a police officer asked her to move while she was idling in front of a Logan Airport terminal in her Mercedes SUV and waiting for her husband. Aside from allegedly trying to run a state trooper into the ground, Greer’s other errors included reportedly telling the police when she was eventually pulled over on the Pike that she was on her way home from her job at Merrill Lynch. It actually turned out that she worked for Smith Barney.
Most unusual way to capitalize on the recent interest in pop-culture pirates: Container shipper CMA CGM restored its Boston-Jamaica freight route, dubbed the “Black Pearl.” No word on whether Johnny Depp was asked to show up for the launch of the weekly Caribbean shipping service at the Conley Terminal in South Boston.
Most unexpected marketing campaign: I enjoyed the Shepard Fairey exhibit at the ICA as much as the next person. But I was a bit perplexed to see the Caritas Christi hospital system run an ad campaign with motifs – including a raised fist holding a stethoscope – that combined Fairey-esque iconography with the spirit of the Communist Manifesto. At least they dropped “Caritas” from all the hospital names. I no longer feel any Catholic guilt when I refer to the hospitals simply as St. E’s, Good Sam and the Carney.
Most overblown controversy: The good citizens of Mansfield freaked out when they heard a Knockouts hair salon (a.k.a. “The Hooters of Haircutting”) was going to open at the Mansfield Marketplace. Hey, it could have been worse, Mansfielders. At least it wasn’t a Foxy Lady.
Jon Chesto is the business editor of The Patriot Ledger. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.