This is SO Wrong: Stupid Travel Ads

In the big scheme of things to complain about, I’ll admit that dumb and annoying travel advertisements don’t rank very high on the scale. But after looking at these two ads for months across multiple publications, I’ve realized that they represent a black hole of stupidity, millions of dollars turned over to some ad agency with a good Powerpoint presentation instead of being spent in ways that could really bring in more visitors to a destination. They represent what’s so wrong with how destinations market themselves. Instead of courting evangelists, conversing with fans, and highlighting what makes this specific place truly special and worth visiting for a certain type of tourist, they go for the big dumb media splash in hopes of getting noticed by some fraction of the masses.

Exhibit A, this truly horrible magazine ad from South Africa Tourism. It’s the kind of thing that makes people scratch their heads and then ask, “What the f*&% were they thinking with THAT one?”

Although I’m tempted, I don’t want to sully this ad with any funny thought balloons or arrows pointing to the silly parts, so just check out the following list. 1) They’re about to get mauled. 2) The guide has a gun. Is he really going to shoot an elephant in Kruger National Park? 3) One of the women is wearing shorts in the middle of a patch of razor grass. 4) Really, you think this is going to be a fun position to be in when you go waltzing through the savannah—and you think your tour company will really allow it? No and no. 5) What’s that “exuberance of the locals” line all about? The exuberant elephants or some mystery unseen humans hiding in the grass?

Exhibit B is not as dangerous, but is doubly dumb. I’ve now seen this is six magazine issues, which tells me they’ve spent a double-buttload of money on it. But what does it mean?

For anyone who has actually been to Scottsdale, Arizona, this ad is laugh-out-loud funny. Scottsdale is a city of strip malls with gargantuan asphalt parking lots, shopping malls that are big enough to be seen from space, and convention resorts surrounding carefully manicured golf courses. It’s about as close to cowboys and cowgirls as a boots store in Tokyo. The only thing you’re likely to lasso there is the iPhone of a soccer mom who is texting while driving her Hummer. Or a retired grandma who’s moving too slowly on her ScooterStore transportation device—in one of those shopping malls. (Are the diamonds in the ad a reference to the fact they have Kay Jewelers outlets?)

I’m sure there are natural cacti somewhere outside of Phoenix and Scottsdale, but I was last there for three days and didn’t see a one. No diamonds in the sky either—the light pollution along the six-lane roads killed anything that may have been overhead.

There’s a demographic that actually likes all this and will get excited about it, especially if they can use their Marriott loyalty points to come play some golf. So show them what you’re really about. Be honest. Don’t try to trick the rest of us into the idea that you’re like Flagstaff or Santa Fe. That deception is ridiculously expensive and it never works.

Figure out what makes you unique and communicate that to us in an genuine way.

(And when it comes to handing money to that ad agency, you might want to start looking at some research reports concerning how people are making their actual vacation decisions. I hear there’s this newfangled thing called the Internet…)

Related silliness: Careful with those Tourism Slogans!

  1. Paige AllOvertheMap

    Wow. Those are doozies. Both so wrong in different ways. Good for you to draw attention to this silliness. Really, there’s nothing anyone could say that would make me want to go to Scottsdale. But South Africa… they can do so much better!

  2. Maria

    I’ve been on two safari trips to South Africa. No way in hell they would let you get that close to an elephant without being in a vehicle!

  3. Laura McMurchie

    Hi Tim. As the tourism PR person for Scottsdale, I have to admit, we have a lot of strip malls, golf courses and plenty of the other things you listed. In addition, however, we have vast unadulterated Sonoran Desert land ripe for hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, kayaking and other outdoor activites in the McDowell Sonoran Preserve and other areas. This particular ad was shot at Pinnacle Peak Park (, so yes, this scenery does exist! And in terms of our advertising budget, it’s segmented into regional buys and fairly modest. If your schedule and writing assingments permit, I’d be happy to host you in Scottsdale and get you off the asphalt, out of the stripmall parking lots, and into the desert!

    • tim

      Laura – extra credit for seeing this and responding! I know there are lots of beautiful places outside of Phoenix/Mesa/Glendale/Tempe/Scottsdale, but how many visitors really come to your city just to leave it? It’s like promoting New York City with photos of the Hamptons or South Beach with a shot of the Everglades. Sure, it would make for a nice design, with an element of surprise, but it wouldn’t be genuine.

      As for the ads being regional buys, some of the magazines came to me in Florida but others I picked up at trade shows (Mexico and Las Vegas) and at an airport newsstand in D.C. That’s pretty widespread. Thanks for the invite though. I’ll get in touch if I’m out there again for a convention or something.

  4. Laura

    The McDowell Sonoran Preserve is in fact IN Scottsdale! The city has purchased just over 20,000 acres and has another 16,000 in it’s sights. Do look me up if you get out this way and we’ll go for a hike.

  5. Nandi Zama

    I’m a South African local and I found your article very funny. We can really should do better with advertising.
    With this advertising budget the tourism board should pay tour operators for their pictures.

  6. Derek

    I’m a South African and am pretty embarrassed by that Ad. We are home to some of the world’s most magnificent game parks, and THAT’S what they decide to advertise? As a previous post alluded to, I too have been on dozens of game drives, while I’ve even hosted a travel show or two, and even with strict supervision, I’ve NEVER got that close to an elephant. South Africa is already considered by many abroad to be a rural third world country where lions and elephants roam the streets, and not only does this add to the stereotype, but its also blatant lie. SA tourism could do worse than simply posting a link to the YouTube clip ‘Battle at Kruger’. That vid will do more for tourism in this country than some Abercrombie and Fitch models, who are clearly not exuberant, standing toe to toe with a photoshopped Ellie. Back to the drawing board

  7. Clarissa

    I actually kind of like the Scottsdale ad. I grew up in Phoenix and went to school in Tempe, while living in Scottsdale. I think the ad captures (no pun intended) the essence of Scottsdale with out being too blatant. Scottsdale has great shopping, restaurants, spas, and nightlife. Not to mention plenty of very attractive people. At the same time, it sits on the edge of some of the most beautiful landscape in the world. I think the ad gets at the core of that dichotomy. I don’t know a lot about advertising, but I would say anyone who is familiar with Arizona would understand what the ad was getting at.

  8. Johnny B.

    I’m not from Arizona and I don’t get it. I agree it looks cool, but I’ve been to Scottsdale 3 times for meetings and all I saw was the same crap I see in every other boring u.s. suburb. If they said here’s what you see when you get the hell out of our strip mall zone, I’d believe it.

  9. Jenny

    I just saw that Scottsdale ad in Afar magazine. The facing page has four hotels advertised and one of them is Enchantment Resort. That’s in Sedona, which must be at least two hours from there. Double strange.

  10. fricho

    The South Africa add is really funny, wonder if you can survive that!

  11. Shamis

    Must admit the SA ads are hilarious! Plus such ads do get our attention more I think rather than a ad that is just there hanging.

Leave A Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *