Montana seems to suffer an identity crisis when it comes to self-promotion. Simply put, we’re never quite sure how to sell ourselves to the outside world.

The latest example comes from Travel Montana, the state’s tourism agency. A few months ago it launched a new $500,000 national print advertising campaign, part of the $5.2 million it spends annually to promote tourism. The slogan? “There’s nothing here.”

The words overlay picturesque Montana scenes, like a bison crossing a creek in Yellowstone National Park, or Grinnell Lake in Glacier.

“Nothing but a landscape so big and rugged and open that it stretches your soul,” the Glacier ad copy reads. “Nothing but the corner store where the sign reads, ‘If we don’t have it, you don’t need it.’ And nothing but a million stars overhead to remind you that no one should settle for a hotel with a mere five. All this nothing leaves more room for the unexpected to happen. Montana. You just never know.”

You never know? First of all, that was the appropriate slogan for the New York State Lottery for years. But, more importantly, what’s this ad campaign saying? It’s like telling out-of-towners: “Montana: If you’re lucky, you can find something to do here, maybe.”

It reminds us of the novelty campaign created a few years ago by a Flathead entrepreneur. In order to dissuade the rampant influx of Californians, he created T-shirts and bumper stickers that read, “Montana Sucks,” with smaller type adding, “now go home and tell all your friends.” That tongue-in-cheek approach has now become the state tourism agency’s strategy. Call it reverse psychology advertising.

It all makes us wonder about Montana’s true brand, the sorts of things “Montana” conjures in the minds of folks on the left and right coasts. With our wide-open spaces and perceived political irrelevance, maybe it is “nothing,” for better or worse. Or maybe, if a slogan were drawn from recent headlines coming out of the state, it would be even less flattering.

It might be something like, “Montana: Where horses come to die.”

Or maybe, “Montana: Home to Guantánamo detainees… and you.”

Or, in the wake of the maddening W.R. Grace verdict, “Montana: Look, but don’t breathe.”

Maybe a slogan is the wrong way to go entirely. We like to think the word “Montana” mostly projects a positive meaning by itself, unlike, say, “Arkansas.” Let the Razorbacks think up cutesy slogans and ironic catchphrases. Instead of “There’s nothing here,” we’d prefer no slogan at all.
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