Subscribe to the Journal, call 505-823-4400

          Front Page

Debate Rages Over TV Ads Featuring Space Aliens

By Mark Evans
The Associated Press
    New Mexico bills itself as The Land of Enchantment. But 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.

[+] Click to enlarge
Courtesy N.M. Dept. of Tourism

This photo from a state Dept. of Tourism magazine ad features a mountain-biking alien and proclaims "New Mexico, Earth" as "the best place in the universe."

[+] Click to enlarge
Courtesy N.M. Dept. of Tourism

[+] Click to enlarge
Courtesy N.M. Dept. of Tourism

The two images above are from television ads depicting space aliens as everyday creatures that vacation in New Mexico are intended to appeal to younger tourists but have become controversial with some New Mexicans.

    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 a possible threat to the well-being of the state's $5.1 billion tourism industry. In other words, although the ads may yield a chuckle or two, the joke is on New Mexico.
    New Mexico spent $900,000 last fiscal year to run the ads on TV stations and in magazines, and plans to spend the bulk of its current $2.9 million budget on the campaign.
    The TV ads have aired in San Diego and Minneapolis, two cities with relatively affluent populations and direct flights to New Mexico. Print ads have run in magazines in the West and Midwest. Critics say the less-than-cuddly, reptilian spacemen may be 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 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 in a speech at a statewide conference in October.
    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 when baby boomers have time and money to travel?
    Rival neighboring states like Utah (with its "Life Elevated" campaign) and Colorado ("Let's Talk Colorado") appeal more directly to older, richer boomers in their tourism campaigns.
    The ad makes no reference to New Mexico's most famous connection to aliens. In 1947, the U.S. military said a weather balloon crashed near Roswell in the desert, but legends persist that it was a UFO, and a small tourism industry has grown up in Roswell about the tale, complete with an annual festival and museums.
    At a recent meeting of the state's tourism commission, M&C Saatchi representatives were urged to "soften up" the aliens in the ad.
    Chris Stagg, a marketing executive at Taos Ski Valley who serves on the commission, said Saatchi's creative team might come back to the panel's 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 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.
    Defending the oddity of the campaign, McCall noted that New Mexico has unique challenges in competing in the hypercompetitive tourism market. New Mexico's main rivals— Arizona, in addition to Utah and Colorado— all have their own charms and more funding from their state legislatures. The ad budgets of those states each rank in the top 10 nationally, while New Mexico's budget lingers in the lower third.
    McCall said hits on the state's tourism Web site have risen since the campaign began. "There's nothing to suggest we have turned off any target (audience)," he said.
    Yet the fate of the aliens remains up in the air, with the results of a study showing whether the ads actually make people 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," he said.
On the Web
    To view the three TV ads, go to: www.newmexicoearth.org