'Say WA!': Say What?

Phyllis Fletcher of member station KUOW reports from Seattle on Washington state's controversial new slogan, "Say WA!" The half-million-dollar ad campaign kicked off in magazines this month, and it has some Washington residents up in arms. Tourists seem mostly confused. But, for good or ill, folks are definitely taking notice.

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CHADWICK: Okay, here's a story about a marketing campaign called Say WA; that's WA, as in W-A, the abbreviation for Washington, the state. It has just launched the Say WA campaign with a half-million dollars in ads. Locals hate it. Some tourists are confused by it. From member station KUOW Seattle, Phyllis Fletcher reports that Say WA is definitely getting folks to say something.

PHYLLIS FLETCHER reporting:

WA! It's the sound of A, a dumbfounded bartender on the Simpsons.

Mr. HANK AZARIA (Actor): (As Moe Szylak) Whaaa?

FLETCHER: Or B, it's the sound of rafting down the Columbia River.

(Soundbite of screaming)

FLETCHER: The answer, according to the Washington State Tourism Office, is B.

(Soundbite of Say WA commercial)

Say WA. Director for Washington State Tourism, Peter McMillin, says the new slogan has a goal.

Mr. PETER MCMILLIN (Director, Washington State Tourism Office): Putting you in a position of participating; take, for example, being ready to go fishing. The Say WA moment is having that fish caught. You have it in the net or you're looking straight at it and saying; man, this is a Say WA moment, so it's the job; it's the fun.

FLETCHER: And it's the seed, he hopes, of curiosity for affluent travelers, age 35 to 55. So, are people getting it?

Unidentified Woman: Say W-A. Say WA?

Unidentified Man: Say WA. Say Washington.

Unidentified Woman: From what?

Unidentified Man: From these wherever.

FLETCHER: Tourists brave the Seattle rain for a day at the Pike Place Market. Melanie Adimac(ph) of Houston, Pat Williams(ph) of New York City and Vernon Robertson(ph) of New Orleans never heard Say WA before. Once they did, they were unimpressed. But, between the raindrops, a ray of hope.

Mr. BRAD PAYAS(ph): Say WA!

FLETCHER: Brad Payas(ph) and his wife, Glenda(ph), are visiting Seattle from Oklahoma. They never heard of Say WA either, but they like it.

Mr. PAYAS: Yeah, it's the initials for the state, and I think Say WA has the same idea and the same effect as OK for Oklahoma.

Ms. PAYAS: I think it'll take you longer to catch on here in Washington than Oklahoma is OK.

FLETCHER: But some ad execs say its okay to put something out there that doesn't make sense the first time you hear it. Seattle marketing executive, Patricia Belliee(ph).

Ms. PATRICIA BELLIEE (Seattle Marketing Executive): I remember the very first time I heard Google, I didn't know what it was; I didn't understand anything about it.

FLETCHER: And we all know the rest of that story, but critics in the tourism industry disagree that Say WA will enjoy a similar happy ending. Darrell Bryan is General Manager of the Victoria Clipper. The company runs high-speed catamarans between Seattle and British Columbia. He says without the marketing muscle of a company like Google, Say WA just doesn't say anything.

Mr. DARRELL BRYAN (General Manager, The Victoria Clipper): It is a joke, and this does not represent our state well. We've become the laughing stock of the region and the country. I'm involved in many tourism organizations and groups, and the consensus of opinion of industry people is that we'd like to see it scrapped.

FLETCHER: But Belliee says it takes time to build a brand, and it's normal for people to say something new is stupid.

Ms. BELLIEE: I think it'd be very easy for people to criticize, so let's just eat up that negative publicity and show them wonderful pictures while we're seeing it.

FLETCHER: Pictures of Washington's coast, wineries and icons like the Space Needle. They're all over the new web site for Say WA. That's also the only place to see the Say WA video. Those on both sides have said the Say WA flap points out how much more money Washington State tourism efforts need. The state ranks 44th in the country for public spending on tourism, but Say WA haters say that low ranking is a blessing right now because there's no money to put Say WA commercials on TV. For NPR News, I'm Phyllis Fletcher in Seattle.

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