ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – For a place that bills itself as "The Land of Enchantment," a recent effort to tinker with New Mexico's image is stirring up lots of angst.
For weeks now, a contentious debate has raged among tourism officials here over a new state-financed advertising campaign aimed at attracting vacationers. Instead of highlighting New Mexico's picturesque desert landscapes, art galleries or centuries-old culture, the ads feature drooling, grotesque office workers from outer space chatting about their personal lives.
To some, the 30-second TV spots — which lead in roundabout fashion to the tag line that New Mexico may be "the best place in the Universe" — are provocative, funny and bold.
But to increasingly vocal critics, the ad campaign is strategically clumsy and a possible threat to the well-being of the state's $5.1 billion tourism industry. In other words, while the ads may yield a chuckle or two, the joke is on New Mexico.
Among the critics' main targets is the appearance of the less-than-cuddly, reptilian spacemen, who they claim are more apt to baffle or frighten away a tourist than reel one in.
"New Mexico has a lot to offer — we don't need to bring our standards down," said Ken Mompellier, head of the convention and visitors bureau in Las Cruces, the state's fast-growing second-largest city, which has refused to use the alien ads to bolster its own local tourism pitches, as it normally would.
"My first question would be: What does this campaign show of the things that we are known for?" Mompellier asked. "I look at this campaign and I don't see the fit. And the things I'm hearing from people, some of it is very negative."
Dale Lockett, president of the state's largest convention and visitors bureau in Albuquerque, addressed the issue at a statewide conference last month.
At a keynote luncheon, Lockett told the creators of the ads, Santa Monica, Calif.-based M&C Saatchi, that their handiwork, while innovative, appeals to the wrong audience. Why, Lockett wondered, was the state targeting its centerpiece ad campaign to a younger crowd at the precise moment when the bulk of baby boomers nationwide are reaching the age when they have time and money to travel?
Rival neighboring states like Utah (with its "Life Elevated" campaign) and Colorado ("Let's Talk Colorado"), for example, make far more direct appeals to the older, richer baby boomers in their tourism campaigns.
"What I was hoping to see (is) that we get the lifestyle values of the 'Land of Enchantment' — and what New Mexico offers — front and center, instead of trying so much to communicate to a certain (younger) demographic," Lockett said in a phone interview.
At a recent meeting of the state's tourism commission, M&C Saatchi representatives were urged to "soften up" the aliens.
"I'm willing to give the agency the benefit of the doubt," said Chris Stagg, a marketing executive at Taos Ski Valley who serves on the commission. But he said he'd be surprised if the Saatchi's creative team doesn't come back to the panel at its next meeting with a "less harsh" version of the campaign.
Aliens are fine, he said, but do they need to be creatures "that look like they're going to suck your brains out?"
Creators and supporters of the campaign, which includes magazine print ads as well as the TV spots, got a boost last week when they learned the ads had won an Adrian Award honoring excellence in advertising and marketing.
The ads are the "envy of other tourism departments," said Stephen McCall, group account director for M&C Saatchi, referring to the honor.
Defending the oddity of the campaign, McCall noted that New Mexico has unique challenges in competing in the hyper-competitive tourism market. New Mexico's main rivals — Arizona, in addition to Utah and Colorado — all have their own charms and significantly more funding from their state legislatures; the ad budgets of each of those states ranks in the top 10 nationally while New Mexico's budget ($2.9 million this fiscal year) lingers in the lower third.
"The thinking is that you can have advertising that looks like the competition, but only if you can outspend them. We can't do that," said Martin Leger, the state Department of Tourism's advertising manager, who has worked closely with M&C Saatchi on the campaign.
Jonah Bloom, editor of Advertising Age, an industry magazine based in New York, said he sympathized with a state trying to get as big a bang as possible from a relatively tiny ad budget.
"I can see why people in New Mexico might feel like this is hardly the best showcase of the state's greatest assets," he said after the reviewing the alien ads online. "But I think what they have to bear in mind is that in this day and age there is an incredible amount of clutter ...
"If I'm a target here in New York ... I'm going to sit on a subway car, which frankly this time of year is blanketed with ads for various different places that offer sunnier climes and have nice landscape shots and which say, "Why don't you come here?' They're not going to particularly stand out and I'm not going to notice."
"In a cluttered world you have to try to something different. When an alien pops up on your screen, you tend to be engaged."
So far, the TV ads have been tried only in San Diego and Minneapolis, two cities with relatively affluent populations and direct-access flights to New Mexico, while print ads have run in magazines in the West and Midwest. So far, McCall said, there's been an increase in awareness of New Mexico in places where the ads have run, and hits on the state's tourism web site have risen noticeably since the campaign began a few months ago.
"We're pretty confident we're doing what we set out to do," McCall said. "There's nothing to suggest we have turned off any target (audience)."
Yet the fate of the aliens remains up in the air, with the results of a "conversion" study — showing whether the ads actually make people decide to pony up and visit — critical to that decision, said Mike Cerletti, head of the tourism department.
"If that study shows what we think it's going to say, which is that the ad is effective, then obviously we are going to continue the campaign. That's the plan," he said.
He figured from the start that the aliens were going to raise eyebrows, though he sounded exasperated at the level of confusion over how the campaign is supposed to work.
"I think that there's a lot of people who say, 'Well, why is anybody going to come to see the creatures?' First of all there are no creatures here ... and second of all, that's not what we're saying."
"We hope," he said, "that these creatures will just stimulate some interest."