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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Not all tales are hypnotizing

A glimpse of the latest Newfoundland and Labrador tourism campaign. —
A glimpse of the latest Newfoundland and Labrador tourism campaign. — Screenshot from the Department of Tourism website

It is, as usual, visually spectacular. This year’s provincial tourism campaign, launched with its first ad this past week, is panoramic, the dialogue slow-moving and well-paced, the rhyming cadence pleasantly familiar. It is built to entice — and it does.

(Not so the provincial tourism minister’s short-lived Twitter introduction to the campaign. That strange apparition, which came off as a peculiar cross between Mr. Rogers and Mr. Bean, managed to be just about as off-putting as you could make it. It has since been taken down — but that’s another story.)

Back to the campaign: it works through the almost-campy tropes that we’ve learned to know and expect — fishermen inside fishing sheds, on wharves and in dories, bearded storytellers with their pints of beer, colourfully painted houses — all of which, in years past, have been adept at landing both tourists and advertising awards. It’s not unusual, when you’re on the mainland and tell people where you live, to have them say they’ve seen the campaigns and this province is one place they’d love to visit.

But this year’s campaign makes me a little nervous. Not because doesn’t look like it will work: the first ad certainly is gripping. But the campaign? Well, the provincial government describes it like this: “Viewers follow along as (a visitor) discovers the ability of locals to spin a yarn about just about anything, from hypnotizing tales and recitations, to little ditties about nothing in particular.”

The problem is that every note is not a song, let alone a symphony. Not every story is worthy of full rhetorical exposition.

Little ditties about nothing in particular?

Yes, indeed, I’ve been there.

No word of a lie, I’ve been pinned down by some absolutely legendary windbags. I’m not sure they need any encouragement — nor am I sure they should they have any. (I’m also sure that, to some degree, it happens most anywhere in the Atlantic region, and anywhere else that spontaneous conversation isn’t looked upon as a symptom of kind of illness — try striking up a conversation with a stranger on a Toronto subway ride. Heck, see what happens if you just make eye contact.)

But offering up a licence to gab? My gosh, if you want to see that in action, take a five a.m. flight from the St. John’s airport and you’ll hear that loud and clear, even if, at that hour, everyone should be allowed to catch up on their sleep.

Not only that, but with all due respect, there are already a fair few people in this province who are more than willing to play up to a stereotype. Light the fuse on this storytelling thing, and you may not be able to stand back far enough.

The problem is that every note is not a song, let alone a symphony. Not every story is worthy of full rhetorical exposition. There are, among us, people who are absolutely spellbinding in their ability to capture you with words. But it’s a skill.

And it’s not always about length and breadth.

Some of the most memorable spots I’ve been in this province have been introduced with the shortest of stories: on the Northern Peninsula, near the turnoff for New Ferolle, a man sitting on the tailgate of a pickup said, “Drive to where there’s parking on the side of the road, take the boardwalk, and you will see.”

That was all — he couldn’t even be chided into explaining anything further.

It was ominous and, in the end, spectacular, when we came across a whole town rebuilt as knee-high dollhouses; the dollhouses marked the locations of homes in the now-abandoned winter home for people who lived further out the peninsula during the summer. Each small house painted, shingled and, inside, sometimes furnished with folded mattresses on bedframes, waiting for winter. Each one was labelled with the name of the past owner. It was like becoming Gulliver in a town where yellow flowers stood roof-high.

Near Trinity, I was led to a huge shingle beach with huge great teeth of grey rock sticking upwards by a set of directions that were no more than a gruff, “End of the road. Walk to the top of the hill.”

The campaign offers vistas that are wordless wonders — and, at the same time, the promise of many, many words. Never forget to take the measure of your audience and figure out which one of those they want or need.

Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at — Twitter: @wangersky.

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