Can a glossy tourism campaign once and for all shed Boston’s image as a racist city?
We’re about to find out.
On Monday, the city rolled out its first-ever campaign to market Boston — not events that happen here such as the Marathon, or places to visit like the Freedom Trail and Faneuil Hall — but the actual city itself, and the people who live and work here.
The stars of the $2.5 million marketing effort — built around the clever tag line “All Inclusive” — are Black, Latino, and Asian-American Bostonians, from restaurateurs to shop owners, who celebrate the city’s majority-minority status in a minute-and-half video, as well as on billboards.
Porsha Olayiwola, a Black woman who is Boston’s poet laureate, narrates the video. “Boston, it’s the city you know . . . it’s the city of history and the city of champions, but we are also a city of people,” she says. “This is a city where new voices are emerging, determined to work harder, dream bigger, and become stronger.”
It’s an unmistakable effort to dismantle a perception of the city as a haven for sports-loving, beer-drinking white bros, a notion that came up in the research to develop the campaign. A 2017 Globe Spotlight series on race reached similar conclusions: 54 percent of Black people surveyed for the report found Boston the least welcoming to people of color, the highest percentage, compared with other major cities.
Or you can just watch “Saturday Night Live,” which likes to remind us over and over how Boston’s racism is rampant and unrelenting.
At any other time, the campaign might feel like a gimmick. But it’s being launched at a conspicuous moment, just weeks after Kim Janey shattered the concrete ceiling at City Hall as the first woman and first Black Bostonian to serve as mayor after Marty Walsh departed to join the Biden administration as labor secretary.
Her ascension from City Council president to acting mayor became national news. Now, “All Inclusive” arrives as if to put an exclamation point on the city’s new narrative of transformation and equitable recovery, in which Janey has been calling a “new day” in Boston.
When Janey previewed the tourism video, she choked up, recalled Colette Phillips, who won the contract to design the campaign along with Proverb Agency and the Greater Boston Convention & Visitors Bureau.
“It was the first time in her 55 years she had seen a campaign that felt like this was her city,” said Phillips, who runs a Boston public relations and marketing firm. “We knew we had a great campaign.”
The six-week campaign — aimed at tourists who can drive to Boston, as well as Massachusetts staycationers — debuts fully on Tuesday, with an integrated marketing blitz that includes print, radio, video, and social media.
Janey, at a press conference Monday at Hibernian Hall in Roxbury, acknowledged the city’s racist reputation but also how much progress has been made and how it must continue.
“I am standing here before you as the first Black mayor of our city and first woman mayor, and that symbolizes how far we’ve come,” she said. “But I’ve been the first to say that we have a lot more work to do.”
The campaign’s timing may seem impeccable, but it has long been in the works. Walsh, the umpteenth Irish-American mayor of Boston, set the effort in motion last fall when he earmarked money out of the city’s federal COVID-19 relief funds. Within the administration, John Barros, the city’s economic chief at the time and now mayoral candidate, has been among its biggest champions. Like Janey, he is Black and grew up in Boston.
The campaign is groundbreaking for another reason: It is the biggest contract awarded by the city to a woman of color.
The marketing push, in the midst of a pandemic, initially drew some criticism, but its debut has always been dependent on COVID-19 cases. It was decided that April, with spring in the air and a vaccine rollout underway, would be a good time.
Kate Davis, director of the mayor’s office of tourism, sports, and entertainment, said the city from the get-go wanted a campaign that appealed to a diverse mix of tourists, but one that also would be an economic boost to business owners of color and workers of color, who were among those most hurt by the pandemic.
“It was all about equitable recovery,” Davis said. “That was our number one goal.”
Still, Davis saw the campaign as inviting to all tourists. “It’s for everyone,” she added. “It’s for visitors and for Boston residents to look beyond their own neighborhoods.”
The campaign features the breadth of diverse businesses run by people of color, including 50Kitchen in Dorchester, El Oriental de Cuba in Jamaica Plain, Tawakal Halal Cafe in East Boston, TrillFit in Mission Hill, Urban Grape in the South End, and Flour Bakery + Cafe.
The campaign arose from a partnership with two Black-owned marketing agencies (Phillips and Daren Bascome, the founder of Proverb Agency), and the Boston visitors bureau.
As part of developing the program, the visitors bureau conducted focus groups on the city’s brand, which found Boston is still perceived as being racist, along with being male-dominated and arrogant.
Martha Sheridan, chief executive of the visitors bureau, said she was “stunned” by the results, given how much things have changed here.
“We have allowed other people to tell our story for too long,” she said.
Bascome’s firm took that research and designed a campaign he described as “female forward,” from the tone down to the color schematic of muted orange, pink, and yellow. He also said he wanted to “show, not just tell” the story of a new Boston by featuring entrepreneurs of color.
“Advertising and branding is about inventing the future,” Bascome said. “We wanted to raise the bar and borders — not what just happens between Fenway Park and the Freedom Trail.”
For me, a Chinese-American who has worked in Boston for nearly two decades, the campaign reflects the city I have come to know: one that is changing, and for the better. Our diversity isn’t always front-and-center, but now it finally is.
That’s how Kristen Ransom felt, who was among the myriad entrepreneurs of color brought in as vendors to work on the campaign. Ransom, CEO and cofounder of Include Web Design and Development in Nubian Square, created the campaign’s website, AllInclusiveBos.com. The firm focuses on telling inclusive and empowering stories.
“The racist history and prevalence of racism in Boston often overshadows the amazing contributions that diverse communities have had,” said Ransom, who is Black.
This campaign “acknowledges that people of color have been an integral part of Boston’s evolution,” she added. “It was an honor being able to tell that part of the story.”
Shirley Leung is a Business columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.