L.A. Readies New Ad Blitz to Polish Tarnished Image : Promotion: Five-year campaign hopes to counter a long run of troubles. Similar drives have fallen short.


OK, here’s the setup: City on the brink. Riots, earthquake, fires, etc. World media’s got us on the run with that bloom-is-off-the-golden-poppy, City of Fallen Angels crud.

Mayor Richard Riordan’s had about enough. He has a team of top ad executives, politicos and others cooking up something big. Like “I Love New York.” You remember the legs that thing had.

Now Los Angeles is looking for an ad campaign of its own. It’s a pitch that must have the clarity of the HOLLYWOOD sign. Something to amp up the adrenaline, like speeding out of Santa Monica’s McClure Tunnel onto Pacific Coast Highway on a glistening midwinter day, but with the edge of a Johnnie Cochran cross-examination. This city won’t buy soft.


Riordan’s New Los Angeles Marketing Partnership (New LAMP) hopes this spring to fire the first salvo in a five-year media blitz--the biggest, newest and most concentrated attack on public perceptions of Los Angeles since the region descended into a string of disasters and recession.

It won’t be the first, or the last, attempt to resurrect the city’s image. Several ad campaigns have come and quietly gone since the 1992 riots. One advertising firm offered its services to the city pro bono, only to have the resulting pitch rejected by Riordan’s office as too dark. A film company produced a series of poetic, one-minute visions of Los Angeles, but the avant-garde production languishes on a shelf. Then there are a thousand unknown promotions--the private ruminations of every resident who still believes that Los Angeles can be great.

“This is the right moment in time for this,” says Lee Clow, chief creative officer for the area’s signature advertising firm, Chiat/Day. “There were too many problems and distractions a year ago. But everyone is starting to feel like they want to come from a positive place. They’re ready to stand up and salute and feel good about where they are.”

Los Angeles did not have to worry much about advertising for much of its history. Climate, geography and economic euphoria were the norm--from Gold Rush to Hollywood mania to aerospace explosion. Even in hard times, Angelenos have cultivated a veritable survivalist’s pride: No commute too tough, no crime too brazen, no ground too shaky for us.

“Trashing L.A. is one of the things we have done for years. It’s essential. People love it,” says Sandra Tsing Loh, a Los Angeles performer, writer and radio commentator. “We live here and say we hate it and then go other places and think how much we want to go back. I don’t think we can just suddenly do a Vulcan mind control thing and say, ‘I love L.A!’ ”

A glib rib can be fun. “How about ‘More guns per capita!’ ” actor and comedian Harry Shearer suggested as a civic adage. “That’s catchy. It would really bring them in.”


But the business and civic leaders who have come together in the nonprofit New LAMP believe that such irony merely reinforces hundreds of CNN headlines and David Letterman jabs, exacting a punishing toll on Los Angeles’ collective unconscious.

So the cities of Los Angeles and Long Beach, Los Angeles County, the Los Angeles Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Economic Development Corp. of Los Angeles County, Los Angeles Area Chamber of Commerce, the county Federation of Labor and private corporations are contributing $4.5 million this year to create their own Los Angeles reality.

Such a relatively modest campaign risks being swamped in the advertising sea. (Even the city’s namesake clothing line, L.A. Gear, spends much more, an estimated $20 million to $30 million annually. And later this year, the convention bureau will try to launch a region-wide tourism trade association with a budget of $30 million.)

But members of the Los Angeles partnership predict that more money will be generated once ads start hitting the street, and that they will get more buzz for their bucks via a series of pro bono alliances. Most notably, the New LAMP has enlisted the volunteer services of the largest media buyer in the country, Western International Media. Says Dennis Holt, president of the firm: “We will be asking the media of this city to sacrifice” by providing free or discounted ad space.

The New LAMP also hired the Downtown advertising firm of Davis Ball & Colombatto to honcho the creative side of the campaign. The agency most recently received credit for rejuvenating sales for downtrodden, cholesterol-laden eggs with ads that showed eggs marching out of prison, with the tag line, “Eggs, give them a break.” Brad A. Ball, who heads the firm along with partner Mark Davis, concedes that Los Angeles is a “very tough sell.”

“But it’s exciting,” Ball added, “because this is definitely a glass half-full and not a glass half-empty situation.”


The New LAMP advertisements will be designed to promote Los Angeles as a place to do business. The partnership will initially target the Greater Los Angeles region, theorizing that locals have become so dispirited that they often perpetuate L.A. bashing. “You have to tell this story at home and tell it continuously,” said Dick Butler, a 25-year advertising and corporate executive, who has volunteered as an adviser to the Los Angeles partnership.

In the coming months, a blizzard of Los Angeles factoids will jump off billboards and news pages and resound from television and radio. All will be designed to counter the popular perception, as Butler says, “that this place is going down the drain.” And the veteran ad man can talk the talk, fervently sprinkling a recent conversation with L.A. gemstones: “Two-thirds of the entertainment jobs in the country are generated in Los Angeles! . . . L.A. alone has a bigger economy than South Korea, and South Korea is booming! . . . Los Angeles is the No. 1 port of entry in the country. It exceeds New York!” And, this last one really strains credulity: “Hey, I commuted from Palos Verdes to Downtown today, and it took just 12 minutes!”

One fact that won’t be discussed: crime. Los Angeles may be relatively safe, compared to other big cities, but Ball and company want to be sure their ads do not end up in embarrassing juxtaposition to negative stories on the evening news. “Any campaign should not be in a position that we would have to pull it when there is a disaster or the latest shooting on the freeway,” Ball said. “It has to survive all those news stories.”

All of the advertisements are to be linked by common themes: hope, pride and confirmation of the city’s economic greatness. And a tag line that will be sung, spoken or printed in every ad: “Together we’re the best, Los Angeles!”

With the content of the ads still a closely guarded secret, the New LAMP’s patrons caution against judging their effort based solely on that line. “To know the tag line is not to know much,” said one mayoral aide. “When you see it with the whole presentation, it makes a hell of a lot of sense.”

Clow, the Chiat/Day executive who is not part of the Los Angeles effort, says any campaign for the area should conjure up images of “dreamers and the visionaries. . . . Remind people that--from John Huston to Katharine Hepburn to the guy who invented the Barbie doll and the Hula Hoop--so many people and things that changed the way we think came out of here.


“Maybe you could show Steven Spielberg with his camera as a kid and then flash to today,” he continued, “to show that (for) people who want to change the world, this is where they should be. It’s always been here and always will be here. That should be the spirit.”

In the unusual world of municipal advertising, though, creativity can be a slave to parochial political boundaries. And there are other challenges: Addressing Los Angeles’ problems directly risks reinforcing them. Hiding them behind civic palaver will alienate a hip audience. Walking the fine line between art and commerce can be a difficult business. This is the town, remember, that fought for months over an official song, and never did choose one.

Another advertising agency found out how torturous the job of marketing Los Angeles could be. Ketchum Communications Worldwide offered, free of charge, to design a marketing campaign for the city.

Announcing the proposal in mid-1993, Ketchum chief Paul Alvarez proclaimed: “Every adjective used to scorn L.A. has an opposite term of praise. Instead of chaos, think diversity. Instead of ferment, think energy. Instead of recession, think transition.” Months of focus groups and brainstorming with civic leaders persuaded the agency that it should address the city’s pros and cons head on, to inspire a positive civic dialogue.

Their billboards would have presented lists of the city’s pros and cons. One, for instance, would have recognized “L.A.’s teams” on one side--Lakers, Dodgers and Kings--and on the other, Crips, Bloods and V 13.

Another billboard would have listed “8.6 million people, 4.5 million cars and 8.75% sales tax” contrasted with “4,785 theaters, 19,887 restaurants and 291.8 days of sun a year.” All the billboards would have closed with: “L.A.: It’s all how you look at it.”


But in front of Riordan’s aides, the pitch fell as flat as Roseanne’s rendition of the “Star-Spangled Banner.” The firm was thanked and told its creative help would no longer be needed. As one mayoral adviser later said: “Why would we want to memorialize the gangs, along with the Dodgers? It was not a good idea.”

At the Convention and Visitors Bureau, another attempt to stray from convention ran aground. Using a $459,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Commerce, the bureau made a foray into the wilds of art by hiring a local production company and six poets to produce a promotional film.

The resulting “L.A. Voices: Six Visions of the City” is an arty mood piece, with poems that range from a joyful celebration of a day at the beach, to a sultry riff on cruising through jasmine-scented hills, to a powerful evocation of the city as a sustainer of dreams.

But the film made executives at the tourism agency uneasy. It will remain on a shelf, rather than be shown to travel and conference planners as originally intended. “It’s pretty and creative, but it doesn’t represent the product as well as a lot of people would like it to,” said one official, who asked not to be named. “It’s never going to see the light of day. They are more or less the dead poets now.”

As Los Angeles struggles to restore its own image, it must also rebuff an onslaught of competition from other states. A recent survey among corporate relocation specialists showed that California is by far their most popular target, with 37% trying to lure businesses out of the state, compared to about 10% who are targeting either Illinois or New York.

Intramural rivalry looms in Southern California as well. The latest shot was fired last month by El Segundo, which erected more than two dozen billboards around the basin promoting itself as unlike L.A.


Proclaims one billboard: “From El Segundo, you have a perfectly clear view of the smog that hangs over L.A.” And another: “One mile from the beach, one mile from LAX, a million miles from L.A.”

Such attacks frustrate Riordan, who believes the region will go boom or bust together. One mayoral aide promptly dubbed the smaller city, which abuts the Hyperion Sewage Plant, as “Smell Segundo.” Another aide proposed a civic slogan: “El Segundo--Where the sewer meets the shore.” Riordan was more diplomatic, simply suggesting that the beach community would have been better advised to invest its $170,000 in the New LAMP’s joint marketing effort.

As it fights to control its own identity, though, Los Angeles may find it difficult to rein in the competition and creativity that remain among its most defining traits. About the time that the New LAMP launches its multimedia effort, guerrilla artist Robbie Conal and friends will be hitting the street. Conal’s black and white posters have become renowned for skewering politicians such as Jesse Helms and Newt Gingrich.

Next, he will take aim at Los Angeles, with “my own little joke about having a sense of humor and persevering in this city.” The poster will depict a yellow happy face that, frame by frame, slowly dissolves into flames. The title: “Greetings from Los Angeles. . . .”