Sarah Holder is a staff writer at CityLab covering local policy, housing, labor, and technology.
How did urban boosters promote cities like Buffalo, Detroit and Kansas City during the 1980s? It took jingles, slogans, and a whole lot of montages.
No gimmick was too gimmicky. It was the 1980s, and chambers of commerce in cities around the country needed to convince people who’d spent the last decades fleeing crime and decay in America’s urban areas to come back downtown and party.
They made their cases, naturally, with the era’s most powerful medium: montage videos.
As CityLab wraps up its “Fun City” series on the urban comeback of the 1980s and ‘90s, we’ve rounded up some of the best ad campaigns and promotional films that city leaders cooked up in and around those years to market their municipalities with businesses, visitors, and conventioneers. Inspired by the success of the 1977 “I Love NY” campaign, a host of cities set off in pursuit of catchy jingles, logos, and slogans capable of lifting up their embattled metropolises. Here’s what they came up with.
Buffalo, New York
The blizzard-weary upstate New York city of Buffalo was overdue for an image refresh in 1980, having long retired its mid-1960s slogan and jingle, “Boost Buffalo: It’s Good For You.”
The result: Talking Proud. High-waisted pants! Arm-pumping! A brisk jog around the city led by a woman leaning backwards precipitously, collecting more Buffalonians along the way! “Buffalo’s got the feeling—talking proud, talking proud!” they sing. In radio, print, and TV ads, the “Talking Proud” campaign blanketed Western New York in the early 1980s; its logo—topped with a noble bison—appeared on board games, t-shirts, candy, and caps. High-stepping actress Terry Licata-Braunstein became a minor local celebrity. When the Buffalo Bills played it at the end of the first quarter of a game just as they completed a touchdown, View of Buffalo reported, the synchronicity cemented the song’s ear-wormy power.
Like the State of New Jersey’s on-brand social media managers, who tweet things like “dirty jerz” to the internet’s delight, the masterminds of the “Talking Proud” campaign openly acknowledged—and defied—the region’s less-than-sunny reputation. “We’re not going bankrupt. We’re not having riots. And we’re not going to take your abuse any longer,” read one pugnacious Talking Proud-themed advertisement, reproduced in The Buffalo News. “So back off, America. If you want to poke fun, poke it somewhere else.”
Tampa and St. Petersburg, Florida
At the airport, we meet a man named P.J. He is, evidently, a football player with the NFL’s newest expansion team, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. But he’s not at all excited about being sent to small-market Tampa. Then a bubbly woman named Linda arrives to take him on a tour of the city, and everything changes. (She is wearing a tiny tee with a football helmet on it.)
The municipal marketing film that ensues, which was produced by a quartet of Tampa/St. Petersburg newspapers in 1976, predates the turn of the decade by a few years, but it hews closely to the ‘80s-promotional-video spirit. It’s also unusual for the genre in that it features several minutes of simulated vomiting. Linda takes P.J. for a boat ride across Tampa Bay, and while she shows off a map of the two cities, points out the Bayfront Center and Al Lang Stadium, and lists the region’s biggest economic outputs (tourism, home building, and “Space Age electronics”), P.J. suffers an extended bout of seasickness.
Then things get weird. Suddenly, they are hang-gliding by the shoreline, over beach resorts and Busch Gardens. “There are things to do all day and all night,” Linda says. “That’s why over 6.7 million people a year visit the metro area!” They soar over a downtown stuffed with skyscrapers and phosphate terminals. They drop into the ocean. As P.J. wriggles into dry clothes, Linda lectures him about the area’s growing household buying power and furniture sales.
By the end of the 18-minute (!) video, we’ve seen much of Hillsborough and Pinellas counties, and P.J. has fallen in love with its citrus-scented twin cities—and, naturally, with Linda, whose picture he reveals has been screen-printed on his own t-shirt. They bust into an awkward song and dance number. “We live a life that’s really downright grand,” they sing. “Sunshine and surf and sand/Growth that has all been planned!”
Whatever its merits, the Tampa-St. Pete promotional effort seems to have done its job well: The metro now holds about 3 million people—almost triple its population back in Linda and P.J.’s time.
The Fox Cities, Wisconsin
“I have only so many years on this planet, and I intend to enjoy them,” says a man walking through the woods in a suit. “The Fox Cities give me the best of everything.”
The man is Ed Fusakio, director of business planning for the Thilmany Pulp and Paper Company, and he’s a big fan of the Wisconsin towns of Neenah, Menasha, Kaukauna and Appleton, which collectively had a population of 150,000 in the 1980s. “Something Special in Wisconsin” proclaim glowing Microsoft-Paint-style letters.
As this Fox Cities Chamber of Commerce promotional video attests, the communities along the Fox River boasted an enviable roster of amenities, even if they lacked a large budget for promotional videos. “Not everybody can sit in his office and look out at a scene like this,” the video opens, zooming through a window to a boat-lined lake. “Not everybody can dock their sailboat in their backyard,” it continues. We see a sailboat docked in a backyard. “Or live in a pleasant neighborhood less than a fifteen minute drive from” — here we take a rapid-fire tour — “the office, the golf club, fishing, the symphony … or just a quiet walk in the woods.”
Not everybody, indeed! We learn the area has high education levels, robust financial health, and “the most productive workers in the world,” says Joe Yock, another businessman who works at another local paper company, as he putters around the factory touching sheafs and muttering “it looks good.”
In case it isn’t clear, the paper industry thrived in this part of Wisconsin since the 1830s. Today, visitors can tour the historic mansions of Neenah’s paper barons, plus the world’s largest collection of glass paperweights — an attraction that this video somehow fails to mention. Sequel time!
Like other industrial cities, Detroit was losing jobs and residents in the 1980s, but not without a fight. John Portman’s Renaissance Center office-hotel complex — the city’s moonshot bid to rejuvenate its dying downtown — opened in 1977, giving the city a swoopy new skyline star that appears prominently throughout “Greater Detroit: SuperCity U.S.A.,” a promotional film produced by the Metropolitan Detroit Convention and Visitors Bureau in 1983, not long after the city hosted a Super Bowl in 1982. The silvery skyscrapers stood out as “the hallmark feature of greater Detroit,” the ebullient narrator proclaims, before launching into the film’s rousing theme song.
“SuperCity U.S.A,” like its 1980 predecessor “Where Else But Detroit?”, was aimed at luring conventioneers, so the montage that ensues highlights attractions like the now-demolished Pontiac Silverdome, the Belle Isle Zoo (which closed in 2002), and the Detroit Science Center (closed in 2011, but now renamed and reopened). It also offers a window into vanished ’80s culinary trends: The Detroit of “SuperCity U.S.A” appears to be a festive land of flambeed tableside dishes, steakhouses, and belly dancers. We see joggers, speedboat races, Pistons games, and suburban shopping malls. Mostly, we see the Renaissance Center: Over the film’s 12-minute runtime, the seven towers loom large over ethnic festivals, parkgoers, and beach frolickers. (We also get a too-brief glimpse of “Renny the Amazing Renaissance Robot.”)
In the real world of Detroit, as local blogger 8-Wood Blog writes, the early 1980s was “a dismal time.” Unmentioned in “SuperCity U.S.A.” is the demise of the city’s flagship 28-story Hudson’s department store or the failure of Woodward Avenue’s short-lived pedestrian mall. The RenCen’s omnipresence in ‘80s Detroit marketing reflects both its high profile and the high stakes associated with a project that was supposed to save the city. Sadly, by 1983 it was already clear that even the world’s then-largest private development wouldn’t be enough to pull off that feat.
Kansas City, Missouri
Corporations may not be people, but businesses and humans need the same things to survive! And those things could be found in 1980s Kansas City, apparently. “Each requires opportunity: the opportunity, for example, to choose a desirable location; to select an environment that will generate a healthy and positive atmosphere,” says Henry W. Bloch, of H&R Block fame. “Living is what Kansas City is all about!” From Henry’s lips to God’s ears.
“Kansas City: A Great Place to Call Home” was produced by an offshoot of the city’s chamber of commerce, convened in the 1970s to craft the region’s national business-friendly image and rescue it from a “rough time.” (Bill Johnson, who led public relations for the locally based greeting-card company Hallmark Cards, masterminded part of the sell.) The video, part of a spree of promotion, relies on the tried-and-true ‘80s civic montage formula: skyline shots, a highlight reel from KC sports franchises, scenes of bustling freeways and parks, a throbbing disco soundtrack. But there’s a distinct emphasis on the many transportation modes available to KC businesses and residents — Kansas City, we are assured, is easy to escape from. The Missouri city is one of the nation’s largest rail centers (“and is still growing thanks to recent mergers”), while its international airport puts residents within three hours of either coast.
Hallmark’s Crown Center, “a $500 million city within a city,” also gets a shoutout. A who’s who of modernist architects contributed to the design of this massive office/hotel/retail complex, a trendsetting example of 70s-style urban renewal that, like many others of its ilk, ended up being not entirely successful as a development-magnet. But after adding more entertainment-themed venues in the 1990s, the Crown Center is still around and drawing crowds today.
Bloch, who died in April 2019 at age 96, was an equally resilient Kansas City icon, and he gets to end “A Great Place to Call Home“ with a flourish: After a few closing words about his hometown’s livability, the businessman climbs into his convertible Mercedes and drives off, to the strains of Wilbert Harrison’s blues classic “Kansas City.” At six minutes, it’s an uncharacteristically brisk display of urban boosterism.