They are the vanity license plates of America’s cities and towns, mere handfuls of words -- sometimes mere handfuls of letters -- that convey metropolitan images as indelible and distinctive as tattoos.
What a city calls itself says more about a city than stacks and stacks of mind-numbing federal census figures ever could.
“A really good city slogan sells a unique experience,” says branding expert Eric Swartz, president of Tagline Guru, a San Mateo, California, verbal branding agency. “It can be either a conversation starter or the exclamation point at the end of a really compelling sentence.”
Some are created by history, some by committee. Some of the best are as organic and persistent as weeds.
Here are 10 of the best, most enduring and most colorful. Like the cities they represent, they’re all over the map.
• Eagle Pass, Texas: “Where Yee-Haw! meets Ole!”
This is euphoric little border town is where multi-culturalism is literally embraced. “Our town (and Mexico’s Piedras Negras) has a long history of friendly collaboration,” says Sandra Martinez of the Eagle Pass Chamber of Commerce (http://eaglepasstexas.com). “That’s been our slogan for nearly 20 years because it practically screams ‘border’ and ‘fun.’” That bit about cultures embracing isn’t just marketing hyperbole either. Eagle Pass is home to the International Friendship Festival, March 18-27. “The highlight is the ‘Abrazo’ -- Spanish for “embrace” -- where people from both countries line up to hug one another in the middle of International Bridge No. 1.” Bridge No. 1? “Yes, we built another one a few years ago to make it easier for everyone to go back and forth.”
• Saratoga, Wyoming: “Where Trout Leap in the Streets”
And you thought your local public works department struggled with things like snow removal. The late outdoor writer Billy O’Neil used the line after observing bionic-looking trout springing from the North Platte River that runs through this picturesque town. “It ran in Outdoor Living magazine in 1927 and just stuck,” says local promoter (www.saratogachamber.info) Stacy Crimmins. “Today that line is on our lampposts, our promotional materials and still really resonates with people who love the great outdoors.” Saratoga’s Hotel Wolf is a renown destination for prime rib lovers, but that’s not the only unlikely traffic you’ll see in tiny Saratoga, pop. 1,736. Crimmins says. “The cars on the bridge have to slow down to allow for all the people fishing the river time to cast.” The priorities in Saratoga mean that people fishing always have the right of way.
• Independence, Missouri: “Where The Trail Starts & The Buck Stops”
As deft a city summation as could be conjured. The phrase gloriously reduces the rich history of this once rough, now refined, frontier town to just eight descriptive words. The first half refers to the town’s proud history as the Ellis Island of the midwest. “Independence was for more than 400,000 Americans the last look at civilization before heading off into the Plains and Indian territory,” says Janeen Aggen of www.visitindependence.com. The National Frontier Trails Museum is here, and tourists can enjoy informative city tours on mule-drawn covered wagon. The Harry S Truman Library & Museum (and, yes, his middle “name” is just “S”) depicts America’s 33rd president as colorful, charming and authentic, much like the very Missouri town he forever called home.
- Yuma, Arizona: “Experience Our Sense of Yuma”
Some 80 years before Plymouth Rock, Spanish explorers in 1540 set foot in this sunbathed land, observed low-hanging clouds from Native American cooking fires and instinctively said the Spanish word for smoke: “Yuma.” Their offhand meteorological observation laid the foundation for centuries of low jokes. “Some people didn’t like the slogan so it’s no longer official,” says Ann Walker of www.visityuma.com. “But it still pops up because lots of people will always enjoy a really good, cheesy pun.” Check out the once-fearsome Yuma Territorial Prison (1876-1909), now a state historical site, and festivals like Yuma Lettuce Days, March 11-13, that pay homage to $3 billion in agricultural interests in a land graced with a whopping 350 days of sunshine. And take it easy on the jokes. Just because they have naturally sunny dispositions doesn’t mean their feelings can’t be hurt. After all, they’re only Yuman.
• Austin, Texas: “Keep Austin Weird”
It’s not difficult to imagine the sort of army that would muster on behalf of this cause. Their uniforms would be tie-dye, not camo. They’d be armed with guitars, not guns. And they’d offer peace pipes with such friendly persistence those determined to make Austin normal would disband in fits of of giggling distraction. “Tell people you’re from Texas and they think, conservative Red State,” says Ron Benear of the Austin CVB (www.austintexas.org). “You get a whole different vibe when you tell them Austin. Everyone thinks Austin’s cool.” The phrase took off after local Red Wassenich explained on-air why he was donating to oddball radio program, “The Lounge Show” on KOOP-FM: The show, he said, “helps keep Austin weird.” Ten years later, Wassenich’s humble and heartfelt proclamation is still a rallying cry for those eager to make aberrant behavior seem like a civic duty. Careful, Austin. Someday soon California’s going to want you back.
• Albuquerque, New Mexico: “It’s A Trip”
Maybe the most potent promotional use of eight letters in marketing history. Straight-arrow nostalgics will associate it with vehicular traffic along old Route 66 that cuts right through town. And the Sandia Peak Tramway is a wonderful little trip up a scenic mountain. Yet, “trip” also has subversive meanings popular with people who enjoy reciting lines from movies like “The Big Lebowski.” “Albuquerque is a creative place where people can escape to and enjoy a whole new reality,” says Megan Mayo of the Albuquerque CVB (www.itsatrip.org). “And that’s just what our little slogan conveys.” But dining at places like the famed El Pinto Restaurant & Cantina, enjoying any of Albuquerque’s 19 museums, or its splendid resorts means a trip to Albuquerque can still be really down-to-earth fun -- even when you’re floating hundreds of feet above it. The Albuquerque International Balloon Festival, Oct. 1-9, is world renown.
- Hershey, Pennsylvania: “The Sweetest Place on Earth”
Hershey is what company towns would look like if companies were run by 6 year olds. There’s a zoo, warterpark, an amusement rides, museums, a grand hotel and a great big candy factory that perfumes the whole town with the heady scent of chocolate. Founder Milton Hershey was determined to build a utopia that nurtured the people he employed. They gave him Kisses (about 1,300 per minute). He gave them schools, affordable housing, theaters, championship golf and everything else. The fatherless candy tycoon died, in effect, penniless in 1945 having directed his entire fortune to fund The Milton Hershey School for underprivileged children. Today, the school’s endowment is $6 billion and will endure for as long as people crave chocolate. “He insisted pennies from every purchase of Hershey products go to fund the school,” says Hershey Entertainment & Resorts spokesperson Mindy Bianca (www.hersheypa.com). And you thought his chocolate was sweet.
• Atlantic City: “Always Turned On”
It could be argued some prostitutes have more demure pick-up lines. But since when did subtlety ever outsell sex? Never. In this case, titillation works for a city that’s always strolled a fine line trying to retain a glorious past while reminding potential tourists about all that’s shiny new and sexy. “People seem to get a chuckle out of it,” says Jeff Vasser of the Atlantic City CVB(www.atlanticcitynj.com), who says the line scores well with bachelor/bachelorette parties, and convivial seekers of nightlife and entertainment. Given that kind of clientele, latching onto something so nakedly risque was no gamble. History shows anything announcing it’s really turned on will always attract more people than it turns off.
• New York, New York: “The City That Never Sleeps”
New York is the only city with a national anthem. The song was written for and first performed by Liza Minnelli in the 1977 Martin Scorsese film “New York, New York,” co-starring Robert DeNiro. But it was Frank Sinatra in 1979 who gave it its signature swagger. Not only does it never sleep, it never acts like it even needs a nap. “That line perfectly conveys all the excitement and electricity that Manhattan represents to the entire world,” says Swartz. “It’s as brash and robust as the city it describes.” It’s home to 24-hour spas, hair salons, movie theaters, bowling alleys and eateries to tempt every taste. And if you need a screw at 4:30 a.m., Manhattan’s the place for you: Nuthouse Hardware, 202 East 29th Street, is an open ‘round-the-clock hardware store. www.nycgo.com
• Las Vegas: “What Happens in Vegas, Stays in Vegas”
The slogan that somehow manages to make sin seem sacred. It both leers and turns a blind eye to the itches much of America longs to scratch. It doesn’t got so far as to endorse immorality, but it does say -- wink, wink -- this is the place to come if you want to get away with it. “Pure genius,” says Swarz. “That slogan, in effect, rivals church. Any tagline that says it has the power to absolve sin is going to really resonate, as this one certainly has.” A little fling of a thing, the nimble little phrase marries promise with perception while simultaneously annulling any sense that adults must always be responsible. Not always. Not in Vegas. www.visitlasvegas.com)