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The state has launched a million-dollar marketing campaign to entice young Chicagoans to move to Wisconsin. But have the ads missed their mark?

If you’ve been to Chicago recently, you may have seen them. Shiny ads plastered all over the Brown Line, depicting dead-eyed L riders staring into space, clearly regretting their life choices. Images of happy Wisconsinites – snowboarding, cooking dinner in beautiful apartments, playing volleyball at Bradford Beach – appear alongside these sad sacks with the tagline “Wisconsin. It’s more you.”

The ads are part of a million-dollar campaign that the state’s economic development outfit launched in January to lure young workers from the Windy City. The idea being that Wisconsin – with its lower cost of living, shorter average commute times and outdoor amenities – has more to offer millennial professionals than Chicago.

Well, I’m a millennial professional (I don’t even pretend to dislike avocado toast), and I moved from Chicago to Milwaukee a year ago, to take a job at this very magazine. So I figure I’m about as qualified as anyone to weigh in on whether a snarky marketing campaign is going to convince significant numbers of Chicago 20- and 30-somethings to move north.

Sorry, Scott Walker, but I don’t think it’s going to work.

The campaign hinges on the assumption that most Chicagoans would trade in their CTA cards for cars if given half the chance. But in my experience, young urbanites – very stereotypically – like affordable 24-hour trains and buses even more than they like artisanal donuts and selfie walls. Portland’s bygone “Fareless Square” (free transit rides in the city’s downtown) is still the stuff that hipster dreams are made of.

Plus, the ads are mean-spirited. They feel like the marketing equivalent of a pushy drunk guy at a bar, insulting potential paramours in a misguided attempt to woo them. And by focusing on what’s wrong with Chicago, the campaign fails to properly consider what Wisconsin is doing right.

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Before moving here, I didn’t know much about the Badger State beyond that it was famous for beer and brats. Many of my Chicago friends were similarly clueless: About a month after I’d settled in, one asked me, in all seriousness, whether I had found “any” vegetarian food here (as if people stop eating plants just north of the Illinois border). Others wanted to know if I missed this or that aspect of life in Chicago: the skyline, the comedy scene, the 24-hour taquerias.

The truth is, I don’t miss those things much because I feel like I got more from the move than I gave up. Admittedly, some of this stuff is alluded to in the ads. My apartment is far nicer than anything I could have found for the same price in my old neighborhood. I now live within walking distance of at least four coffee shops, three breweries, two concert venues and a beach. My commute time has shrunk by 30 minutes. And yes, Wisconsin has so much more going for it than beer and brats. Anyone who’s driven from Chicago and watched the suburbs and the pancake-flat Illinois prairie open up a bit north of the border into rolling hills and valleys dotted with glittering glacial lakes knows that.

But the thing I like most about living here has less to do with amenities or affordability than a uniquely Sconnie sense of community and civic pride. People say hi to their neighbors, and they band together to support local business owners, artists and nonprofits to a degree that suggests they feel personally responsible for their success. (Case in point, Milwaukee’s performing arts fund is the largest in the country.) The city has an identity all its own, and people here should be proud of it; they don’t need to brand Milwaukee as a less expensive, less gritty Chicago. And the state as a whole really does have a lot to recommend it to young transplants. I just wish the ad campaign had focused more on those strengths, and less on Illinois’ weaknesses.

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Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a busy day of festival-hopping and beer-drinking ahead of me.


“Bad Ads” appears in the June 2018 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

Find it on newsstands beginning May 28th, or buy a copy at milwaukeemag.com/shop.

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