Michigan injects politics into tourism slogan

“Pure Michigan” has been a popular tourism slogan. But the state is now using it to attract businesses by touting a new law that curbs union power.

The award-winning Pure Michigan branding campaign covers all the bases of tourism marketing: beautiful outdoor imagery, stirring music, even a celebrity voice, Michigander Tim Allen’s fatherly tones. It’s hard to imagine it stirring up controversy, but when the state’s economic development authority used it in an ad touting Michigan’s controversial new right-to-work law, fans of the slogan exploded online.

Part of the reason why some took offense is that many residents have a feeling of pride and ownership about the slogan. From the beginning, it focused on what was great about Michigan, even while auto plant layoffs made headlines.

“The Pure Michigan campaign really strikes a chord with people,” says Michigan State University tourism professor Dan McCole, who has seen people tear up watching the ads.

That emotional connection is why some residents got angry when the slogan appeared in a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal urging business to come to Michigan because of its new law limiting union power. Passage of the right-to-work law in December sparked spirited protests, with pro-union demonstrators crowding Michigan’s Capitol. Tourism marketing experts are surprised the state would risk the goodwill Pure Michigan has earned by linking it with such a divisive political issue.

“From a pure marketing perspective, I was shaking my head,” says University of Michigan marketing professor Christie Nordhielm. “What the economic and business development folks should be doing is developing their own positioning and their own slogan.”

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation is responsible for attracting tourists and businesses. It used to have a separate business slogan as part of its annual $35 million marketing budget. But the agency dumped it two years ago in favor of a proven winner.

"We wanted to take advantage of a very favorable part of our state, which was the brand Pure Michigan that we had created," says Mike Finney, who head's the state's economic development agency.

The move was uncontroversial until the right-to-work ad appeared earlier this week. Tourism industry professionals worry the controversy will devalue their well-established slogan and deter visits to Michigan. Vocal criticism of the right-to-work ad now has the state’s marketers rethinking the move.

“We will make decisions on whether it makes sense for us to modify this campaign in any way,” Finney told Marketplace.


Do you know your state slogan? Read the list here and tell us whether you think it best represents your state.

Kai Ryssdal: A tourism campaign in Michigan has found itself wrapped up in some nasty labor politics. Pure Michigan is the slogan that been headlining award-winning tourism ads for a couple of years now. But this week, the state attached the phrase to an ad that encourages businesses to move in because it's got that new right-to-work law. Which has in turn set off a reaction tart as a Michigan cherry.

Marketplace's Mark Garrison has more.


Mark Garrison: The Pure Michigan campaign covers all the bases of tourism marketing: beautiful outdoor imagery, stirring music, even a celebrity voice, Michigander Tim Allen’s fatherly tones.

Michigan State University tourism professor Dan McCole has actually seen people tear up.

Dan McCole: The Pure Michigan campaign really strikes a chord with people.

It focused on what was great, even while auto plant layoffs made headlines. Many residents have a feeling of pride and ownership about the slogan. That’s why some got angry when it appeared in an ad urging business to come to Michigan because of a new law limiting union power.

Christie Nordhielm: From a pure marketing perspective, I was shaking my head.

University of Michigan marketing professor Christie Nordhielm says the state needs another phrase.

Nordhielm: What the economic and business development folks should be doing is developing their own positioning and their own slogan.

The Michigan Economic Development Corporation oversees marketing for tourism and business. There was a separate business slogan, but it got dumped a while ago in favor of a proven winner.

Mike Finney: We wanted to take advantage of a very favorable part of our state, which was the brand Pure Michigan that we had created.

Mike Finney heads the Corporation. Nobody complained until the right-to-work ad appeared. Finney told me the reaction has his team rethinking.

Finney: We will make decisions on whether it makes sense for us to modify this campaign in any way.

Pure Michigan fans who want their slogan protected from the impurity of politics just might get their wish. I'm Mark Garrison, for Marketplace.

About the author

Mark Garrison is a reporter and substitute host for Marketplace, based in New York.

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