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State enlists 'Airplane!' alums for TV spot

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Neil Johnson
March 3, 2014

LAKE GENEVA—Forget those tourism advertising spots that show a sweeping panorama of beauty unparalleled.

Forget state tourism slogans such as “Pure Michigan,” which last year was appropriated as political rhetoric touting Michigan's new status as a right-to-work state.

Instead, Wisconsin tourism is getting an advertising and PR boost from Roger Murdock and Ted Striker, pilots from the 1980 comedy film “Airplane!” 

“Murdock”—or, as he's known in real life, former NBA great and Milwaukee Bucks player Kareem Abdul-Jabar—and “Striker”—actor Robert Hays—were among guests Monday at the Wisconsin Governor's Conference on Tourism at the Grand Geneva Resort in Lake Geneva.

The pair, along with Wisconsin natives and “Airplane!” producers and directors David and Jerry Zucker and Jim Abrahams were unveiling a new series of TV ads for the Wisconsin Department of Tourism that offer a takeoff on cockpit scenes from the famous airline disaster spoof film.

Wisconsin Tourism Secretary Stephanie Klett called the new ads fun and refreshing compared to conventional state tourism commercials showing scenes of visual splendor from around a state.

“That's something everyone does,” Klett told hundreds of tourism officials from counties around the state Monday.

Klett's address came before she introduced Gov. Scott Walker, and later, the cast and producers of the commercials.

In 30-second ads debuted at the conference, Abdul-Jabbar and Hays deadpan in “Airplane!” character as they fly low past Wisconsin scenes. The plane is featured flying so low the pilots can make out snowmobile riders. Abdul-Jabbar reaches out of the plane and scoops up a handful of snow.   

Each spot is punctuated with the film's plastic blowup “Otto Pilot,” which pops up in the cockpit wearing a triangular, Packers-style cheese hat.

It's a new take on tourism advertising that Jerry Zucker said he thinks embodies the easy-going spirit of Wisconsin people.

“Our memories in Wisconsin, it was a place where we had a lot of fun. Wisconsin has a great sense of humor,” Zucker said. “Wisconsin people, they're not so serious about themselves. They don't have the same kind of ego as elsewhere. It's a great place to vacation.”

Already, the state's Department of Tourism is boasting the “Airplane!” ads have brought in $10 million in “earned media”—marketing jargon for unpaid media coverage—at a time when the state averages $60 million a year in overall “earned media,” Klett said.

The success seems to go hand-in-hand with growth Wisconsin's tourism sector has seen in the last few years, especially in Walworth and Rock counties.

In Walworth County, where this week's tourism convention is being held, tourism is now at least a $455-million industry, and that amount of spending grew 11.8 percent between 2011 and 2012, according to state data. That's twice the pace of the state's overall 5 percent tourism growth.

The Walworth County Visitor's Bureau estimates Walworth County's growth in tourism, in large part bolstered by an annual influx of Chicago-area visitors and vacationers, has the county ranking sixth of 72 counties statewide.

Rock County added 267 employees with jobs directly linked to tourism between 2011 and 2012, a 7.5 percent jump.

The 2013 state tourism data, which are expected in May, could show another increase in economic activity, said state Department of Tourism spokeswoman Danielle Johnson. She said a new data-analysis vendor will calculate tourism to show its impact across the entire economic sector.

During an address Monday at the convention, Gov. Scott Walker, who went to school in Walworth County, touted Wisconsin's beer, cheese-curd and kringle-heavy food and beverage tourism sector. He said walleye-stocking programs have added 440,000 fish to Wisconsin waters for the state's $2.3 billion sport fishing industry. 

Significant efforts have come through public-private walleye stocking programs as recently as last year at Geneva Lake.

Walker said the program aims to make Wisconsin “the walleye capitol” of the U.S.

In a press conference Monday, Abdul-Jabbar recalled his time in Wisconsin while playing for the Bucks. One of the state's new tourism commercial spots features him in the cockpit in a Bucks jersey.

Donning the old uniform felt familiar, he said.

“Anyplace I go in the country, there's somebody who says, I remember you in Wisconsin,” Abdul-Jabbar said.

Perhaps the best plug for Wisconsin tourism—one left out of the commercials—came during the press conference. Abdul-Jabbar said he remembers his time in Milwaukee and how he marveled at the blend of parks and outdoor recreation in the state.

“The few moments I had of leisure time, I'd be outside,” he said.



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