Lately, I have been sensing a fair amount of negativity here on Smart City Memphis.  We may have been at this so long that frustration is getting difficult to shake off.  Instead of rehashing all of the reasons we are right and restating the case for this idea or that solution one more time, I thought it might be fun to look at other messages that we could adopt.

I’m not suggesting that anyone here change their mind, tweak their agenda or anything like that.  I am asking the few dozen writers, few hundred commenters and few thousand readers to consider helping simplify our message.  Perhaps we can make city building fun, important or comfortable?  How are we selling what we need to do in this city?

As a starting point, I am falling back to my greatest weakness.  I love television.  But more than television, I really love commercials.  I am that guy who has to arrive at the theater 20 minutes early in order to sit through the slide-show of local restaurants, the National Guard commercials and catch every single preview.  Ads are both art and entertainment to me.

The Serious Message

One of the top ads running on CNBC right now is one for Thomson Reuters.  A young, but very professional, woman walks out of a subway… probably in Europe.  She is looking at information on her mobile device and thinking the following to herself.

I don’t have time for old ideas.

I’m not interested in the old boys.

I’m not nostalgic for the old days.

I’m hungry for something new.

Why can’t this be the theme for the new Memphis?  I know this doesn’t represent everyone but this represents precisely the one opportunity we are not currently taking advantage of.  And it is historically consistent with why people walked out of the woods of Tennessee, road trains over from Arkansas and hitched wagons from the fields of Mississippi to build Memphis in the first place.

This is serious.  This is important.  This sums up exactly what Smart City Memphis has been trying to convey about the future of cities and why we must engage in creating a better environment.  Frankly, because we want her to live here.

The Fun Leader

There may be a few people around here that have a man-crush on Denver Mayor (and Colorado Governor Candidate) John Hickenlooper.  This guy has serious ideas but doesn’t take himself seriously.  He is at ease dealing with budget problems and constituent complaints.  He strikes me as someone that you don’t want to disappoint and still someone that you might bump into on the bus.

I don’t think that Colorado’s culture is that different than ours.  They’re pretty conservative people overall.  But not so much so that the leader of the community is scared to put beer and showers into his ads.

The point: Why do things like smart growth, budget reductions and sustainability have to be so awfully boring?  We haven’t been able to scare people into doing the right thing.  We haven’t been able to rationally reason with enough influencers.  So, maybe we shouldn’t be so ashamed of drinking beer… if it gets our point across, of course.

The Comfort Factor

Maybe part of the problem is us?  We are crusaders.  We are honestly fearful of higher taxes and neighborhood identity loss and economic segregation.  We don’t lose our minds over this stuff just because we are nerds.  We are angry that people cannot see the future we believe is descending upon us at an extraordinary rate.

On the other hand, we forget what we have to build on.  This community has more museums per capita than we should be able to support.  We have remarkable access to parks.  We have more restaurants than we could ever count.  We have way more retail shops than we need.  We have four colleges.  We have sports teams coming out of our ears.  We have competing arts districts.  We could make a list that is a mile long of wonderful reasons that this city is special.  And I believe this makes most people comfortable.

Comfort also translates into lazy sometimes.  Perhaps we need to remind ourselves that things are good.  Perhaps we need to remind our neighbors that they have it good too.  Yes, we will have to pay the piper someday… probably sooner than even we SCMers want to admit.  But, if it builds interest, maybe we can sell the façade of comfort?

One of the top foreign ads this week stars an army of kittens.  If IKEA can use cats to make people interested in a discount furniture superstore, then we shouldn’t discount what this cutesy-comfort imagery holds for building Memphis pride.

Please Help

Let’s examine our messaging.  It can contain serious information and still be inspirational.  It can tell a story and still be fun.  I am not sure exactly where the kittens fit in but I’m not ready to rule anything out.

I also think actions speak louder than words.  I think that messaging can go horribly wrong, seem trite and eat up resources that should often be allocated elsewhere.  I also think that there is already a wealth of very well produced urban design messages out there.

But we are just friends talking here.  Will you please brainstorm below about ways to engage this city with a new message that sells them on something that most have never seen?  At the very least, perhaps we need the distraction to help us before we move on to the next round of serious business.

This should be fun.

Unsolicited Plug: Each winter, the Brooks Museum is one of the few U.S. locations to screen the British Television Ad Awards.  The event is remarkable.  Look for it.