Maine spends more than two million dollars a year advertising our scenery to out-of-staters. The ads, mostly on television and in magazines from New Hampshire to the District of Columbia, aim to entice tourists to come to Maine. To justify its outlay, the state’s Office of Tourism points to its annual poll of people in the Northeast. Putting aside for the moment the details, the poll’s basic assumption is that anyone in its sample who saw an ad for Maine and who came to the state made the trip because of the ad.
If you saw a television ad for a brand of laundry detergent and later bought that brand, the TV ad is clearly the only reason for your buying decision, right? You don’t think about price, availability, performance, or any other characteristics when you make a purchase, do you? To go by the kind of polling they do, that’s how Maine’s tourism officials think people make decisions about where to go on vacation.
In reports touted to the public, summarized for legislators, and put on the tourism office’s Web site, the Canadian research company that actually does the polling (it is getting $284,000 for all its Maine tourism surveys this year) says that, in 2004, 1,393,000 visitors came to Maine “due to” the state’s $2,398,000 ad campaign — implying that their visits were directly caused by the ads. The ad campaign was run between April and November on the theme of “It must be Maine.”
By that measure, the campaign, created by New York ad agency Warren Kremer Paino, has a super-extraordinary return on investment. If true, in 2004 we spent only $1.72 to bring an individual or a family to Maine. In 2004, every advertising dollar yielded $119 in visitor spending, the Toronto research firm, Longwoods International, also claims. That is an 11,900-percent return to the economy. (The 2005 numbers, which are similar, are still only in draft form.) And one dollar of advertising generated nearly $10 in state revenue from taxes, Longwoods says, in a calculation done with the State Planning Office. That is a 1000-percent return to the treasury from the advertising. These supposedly are just the short-term benefits, not including delayed visits to Maine.
“That would be a good deal,” says Waldoboro legislator Dana Dow, with sarcasm, about such economics. He adds: “I take such claims with a grain of salt.”
Dow is the folksy Republican senator on the Business, Research, and Economic Development Committee, to which the tourism office reports. Dow says it costs him about $50 in advertising to get a customer to go to his furniture store. To him, the state’s numbers seem too good to be true.
Too good to be true
As a matter of fact, they are. Those 1.4 million tourist visits in 2004 did not really occur “due to” the advertising, admit the state’s tourism director, Dann Lewis, and Tom Curtis, the Longwoods executive who deals with Maine.
It would be better to state that people were “influenced” by the ads, Curtis says, conceding that many things besides ads influence tourists’ decisions whether to come to Maine. But saying “due to” is just a matter of “semantics,” he claims — though in Longwoods’s 2004 report the 1.4 million trips are said to have been spawned “as a direct result of the advertising.”