With my 18th century interests and Connecticut residence, a tag line like "Still Revolutionary" certainly ought to appeal to me, but I am not the target audience of Connecticut's newly minted $27 million promotional campaign. Watch the initial video and then we'll read the tea leaves together.
So, does this speak to you? Does it reach out to your heart and disposable income and say come to Connecticut? Whose vision is this?
Well, it is Governor Malloy's, certainly, and the professional consulting firm hired to promote our state. It seems to be directed toward at affluent professionals, vacationing families with children, cultural and heritage tourism, and particularly at successful African Americans. I'll return to this last demographic shortly, and consider the curious choice to emphasize a storyline connecting an African American man to his Connecticut roots and an ancestor who served during the Revolution, rather than hitching a ride on the Civil War Sesquicentennial which is totally absent from this video.
Actually, there is a great deal that is not emphasized in this two minute and seven second-long "Connecticut: Still Revolutionary " brand launch. Western Connecticut is missing, for one thing, with its world class trout streams and outstanding outdoor recreation opportunities including national treasures like the Appalachian Trail. Aside from someone falling backward off a bridge on a zip wire in slow motion - overwhelmingly the preferred camera speed for this promotion - the only way people in this ad seem to enjoy the outdoors is from their vehicles.
Classic New England fall foliage and white steepled village greens just didn't make the cut. One would not get the impression from this video that Connecticut has any farms at all, except for wineries. So much for Agra-tourism. So much for bucolic landscapes and covered bridges. There is plenty in the video about the Connecticut River Valley and the Southeastern part of the state. We have Mystic Seaport and Aquarium and the two big casinos on full view. It was nice to see the Essex Steam Train and Hartford Symphony featured, but this still leaves a great deal of the state and what it has to offer out of view.
The "Still Revolutionary" motto implies that The Land of Steady Habits is full of disruptive technology, a place where invention and independence are both highly valued. So where are the heirs to Samuel Colt, or P.T. Barnum, or David Bushnell (who was both a Revolutionary and an inventor)? Making wine, or making bets at Foxwoods, maybe, but they are not in evidence in this initial promotion. And why is that nice white couple that shows up in their car at 1:32 seconds into the video using a paper map to "follow the sky" like it says in the promotional song? Don't they have GPS?
If the creators of this campaign really wanted to make a strong connection between our state's Revolutionary past and our innovative present, all it required was a shot of the full-scale replica of Bushnell's American Turtle submarine at the Connecticut River Museum fading into a shot of a sub from General Dynamics putting out to sea. Stick Fort Griswold Battlefield State Park in the sequence and the African American man in the video could make a direct connection to his Revolutionary forebears by viewing its Jordan Freeman plaque commemorating the heroics of one of its black patriot defenders. It just feels like another missed opportunity.
Let's examine the story arc of the African American couple in the video who come to Connecticut. Their inspiration is apparently the discovery of an image in a book of a black soldier of the Revolution, with the inference that he is an ancestor. Given the popularity of genealogy programs like Henry Louis Gates' "Finding Your Roots", this is a pretty good hook. You can clearly see the soldier's cocked hat and hunting frock (and anachronistic mustache, too), though it is not clear whether the illustration is meant to be a photograph or a black and white reproduction of a painted or engraved portrait. Given that daguerreotypes were not available before 1839, one hopes it is not the former. Again, going with a contemporary photograph of a black soldier from the Civil War would have made the connection so much easier, but then there would be nothing in the film that directly references the American Revolution and the "Still Revolutionary" tag line.
The story continues as the couple get on their motorcycle (visually relaxing as they enjoy the freedom of Connecticut's roadways). Then the man dismounts, removes his helmet, and tries to orient himself. He glimpses a quiet stream. He sees the shade of his ancestor marching away through the forest (the only glimpse of outdoor recreation in the video that is truly Revolutionary). He then goes to dinner at a casino to toast his homecoming.
If he had had his moment of ancestral connection at Putnam Memorial Park, or Fort Griswold, I would have bought it. If the choice had been to highlight the service of African Americans in the Civil War and the State's considerable contributions to the cause of Abolition - after all, we have the birthplaces both of Harriet Beecher Stowe and John Brown right here in western CT - I would have been more satisfied. But then, it is not about me, or my interests. It is about that guy on his motorcycle and others like him and what will motivate them to come to relax and spend money in Connecticut.
I wonder whether the consultants and focus groups used for this promotion deliberately chose not to link to the Civil War for its target African American audience. Being reminded of slavery is not the same as being reminded of freedom. There were more than 300 men of color from Connecticut who fought during the Revolutionary War, the vast majority of them for long terms of service in the Continental Line. For most of the war, they were part of integrated regiments, and this is what the video shows in its brief depiction of the ancestral soldier, marching away in single file behind two fellow white soldiers. This is not part of the popular narrative of the Revolution, but neither is slavery.
The message here is; "You are successful, a self made man, and you can be proud of the part your Connecticut ancestor played in winning our freedom." It is not a Revolutionary message, though it does put people of color back into the story of our nation's founding. It does not put them in our extraordinary natural areas, but there may be a reason for that as well. I once shared a plane ride with the poet Nikky Finney, who remarked that when she was growing up in rural South Carolina, her grandparents had an intimate knowledge of their farm that stopped short at the uncultivated woods beyond their fields. Bad things could happen to you in there. There were trees with strange fruit.
I would like to think that when the African American man in the promotion gets off his motorcycle, he is struck by the stillness of the woods and the movement of the brook and something else awakens inside him when he sees the ghost of his revolutionary ancestor. A sense of belonging as well as continuity. A connection to place as well as history. An investment in what happens here going forward. That would be a great outcome, for him and for Connecticut.