"Pure Michigan," Troubled Waters

by Meghan O’Gieblyn

If you live anywhere along the great swath of the Rust Belt, you’ve probably seen the television spots. There are a dozen or so variants, but each ad begins in the same manner, with cinematic piano music and sweeping, aerial shots of lighthouses and crashing waves. They show beaches of unblemished sand and kids cannonballing off floating docks. The narration is reminiscent of the copy found in certain resort brochures in that it seeks to not merely describe the locale but to evoke an entire experience: “The perfect summer has a voice…” begins one. “It whispers one more game, one more swim, one more round.” The ads are paid for by Travel Michigan, a division of the state’s economic development corporation, and end, always, with the tagline “Pure Michigan.”

About a year ago, my husband and I, who have spent most of our adult lives in the major cities of the Midwest, moved to Muskegon, a small town on the western coast of the lower peninsula. The ads, which air regularly in Milwaukee, Cincinnati, Indianapolis and Chicago, air here too. I suppose they’re trying to reach people who are passing through. Or maybe the ads are meant for us, the residents, as a morale boost of sorts, a reminder that life here is good. Muskegon is an old lumber town whose economic telos ended the day Chicago discovered steel, but it has persisted through several recessions and decades of industrial decline. I grew up here, and my husband and I moved back to be closer to family, though I suppose we were also drawn by the prospect of clean air and solitude, of freshwater swims along the eerie, Galapagos-like stillness of deserted beaches. On some mornings in early summer, the shallows along the shoreline are like glass, the water so clear it looks chlorinated.

While the Pure Michigan ads pay homage to places all over the state, a great deal of the footage features the western shoreline of Lake Michigan, from St. Joseph all the way to the Upper Peninsula. There are shots of canoes traversing the oceanic blue coastline along Sleeping Bear Dunes and of anglers roll-casting in shaded tributaries. The ads clearly convey that this is a place of water, and that the water is, as the tagline suggests, pure. “Water:” a deep male voice intones. “We take our showers with it, we make our coffee with it, but we rarely tap its true potential and just let it be itself, flowing freely into clean lakes, clear streams, and along more freshwater coastline than any other state in the country.” It’s not impossible to imagine the voice, coupled with aerial shots, as belonging to God himself.

In fact, it belongs to the actor Tim Allen, a Michigan native whose longtime role as Tim “the Toolman” Taylor established him as the quintessential father figure of Middle America, and whose warm baritone has lent the ads what Forbes magazine called “a mystical power.” (I suspect the effect only lands for some — my younger sister hears Buzz Lightyear). The piano music is likewise lifted from the movies, from the soundtrack of the 1999 film The Cider House Rules. The song evokes the kind of autumnal sentimentalism that animates Starbucks ads and late-career Diane Keaton films.

The ads, which are now entering their tenth year, have proved the most successful tourism campaign in the state’s history. Every buck spent on the Pure Michigan ads has returned to the state almost seven dollars in tourism revenue, and the record number of visitors in 2014 was widely trumpeted as the fruit of the campaign. There are now Pure Michigan coasters, sweatshirts, golf divots, and boat bags. You can get a custom license plate emblazoned with the slogan. On Facebook and Instagram, users post photos of sunsets and buckets of ripe apples appended with the hashtag #puremichigan. The campaign has, in other words, radically transcended its initial effort to entice visitors to the state and has turned Michigan into a lifestyle brand.

When I was growing up in the 1990s, the state slogan was the more prosaic “Say Yes! To Michigan,” a phrase that made it seem like the state was a proposition to vote for at the next midterm election. It came about in the 1970s, when deindustrialization left Michigan with the highest unemployment rate in the country, and young people fled in droves to seek work elsewhere. (Ironically, that slogan is now best remembered by people of my generation as the title of a song by Sufjan Stevens, who left the state for Brooklyn.) While the state’s economy has stabilized somewhat since that nadir, Michigan has been unable to prevent its educated youth from leaving. It is one of only four states in the nation that has fewer college graduates now than it did ten years ago.

I’ve long suspected that the Pure Michigan campaign owes its success, in part, to reaching those exiles — the state’s prodigal children. A friend of mine, who spent her twenties working a high-stress job at an advertising firm in Chicago, told me that on especially bad days, after an hour-long commute back to her basement apartment, she would hole up in her bedroom with her laptop and watch the ads, one after another, and weep with homesickness.

“Carpools, conferences, microwave dinners,” Allen intones. “They blur one into the next. We lose ourselves in the fog in everyday life, and drift away from what matters.” This is perhaps the most popular of the campaign’s television spots, “Lost and Found,” focusing on Michigan’s iconic lighthouses. It aired so frequently a few summers ago that I still know its copy by heart. According to Allen’s dulcet tones, the “fog of everyday life” — the fog of late-modernity — can be dispelled by “the light of more than one hundred lighthouses burning through that fog, and beckoning us back to what’s real and true.”

Michigan has recently been in the news for a more troubling kind of fog. In March, Newsweek reported on toxic pollution in River Rogue, one of Detroit’s southern industrial suburbs. The city is a bleak landscape of gas flares and smokestacks, and its air and water have been besieged by an unholy legion of chemicals: benzene, sulfuric acid, hydrochloric acid, methanol, and ammonia. The main culprits are two DTE Energy plants and a large steel factory. The plants are so dirty they regularly burnish the sky a deep orange hue and emit so many asthma-inducing toxins that the neighborhood has spawned a bootleg market for cheap inhalers.

The story drew national attention in part because it came on the heels of the Flint water crisis, which was declared an emergency in January (the Newsweek article was subtitled “Flint Isn’t Michigan’s Only Disaster”). All the horrific anecdotes coming out of Flint are by now well known: the bureaucratic apathy, the government cover-ups. The water was so polluted with lead that all children under the age of six were declared poisoned, and a local pastor stopped using it for baptisms.

It’s tempting to view the Pure Michigan ads as a particularly Orwellian form of propaganda — or, at the very least, a deft act of corporate whitewashing. The poetic irony has not been lost on the residents of Michigan, some of whom have made parody videos of the travel ads, focused on places like Flint and Detroit. In the comments section of a local news site, one resident offered up an acronym to describe “pure” Michigan under Governor Rick Snyder: “Pillaged, Upended, Raided, Emaciated.”

Both pollution scandals took place on the southeast side of the state, a region that frequently makes the national headlines for pollution, corruption, and crime; Pure Michigan lies conveniently elsewhere. Tim Allen is from the Detroit area and has been an occasional booster for the city’s revival, but when he was asked whether the Pure Michigan ads could lure millennials back to the state, he diverted attention to the coastline. “You have to show them some of the boardwalk, beach type of communities, like Saugatuck. And the National Cherry Festival in Traverse City,” he said. Unlike the old Say Yes! campaign, which appealed to a sense of political obligation, the Pure Michigan ads ask only for aesthetic appreciation. If the children are to return, it will not be to rebuild the state’s moribund cities but to retreat into its bucolic peripheries.

If the pollution scandals have failed to tarnish the Pure Michigan brand, it’s because they don’t in any way disrupt the foundational myth of the ads: that the world can be neatly divided into two kinds of places. There are the fast-paced centers of industry and greed, where we are forced to do our bidding, and there are the pastoral retreats where we can find ourselves and, perhaps, be forgiven. The dichotomy is implicit in the ads’ many appeals to viewers who are blinded by the fog — real or metaphorical — that pervades our cities. “As life starts moving faster and faster, we need to make a choice:” say Allen, “to move faster with it, or to step off every now and then.”

This idea that one can simply “step off” the path of modernity and retreat into the wilderness bears a long lineage in the American imagination, from the transcendental creeds of Walden to the Romantic allure of primitivism in all its forms. In his formative history of Chicago, Nature’s Metropolis, William Cronon notes that the Midwest has often been characterized by a false division between the Fair Country and the Dark City, “the one pristine and unfallen, the other corrupt and unredeemed.” Late-nineteenth century novelists like Hamlin Garland, Frank Norris and Robert Herrick wrote about the rites of passage by which young people would leave their rural homelands to find work in Chicago, amid the stale air, the smoke, and the slaughterhouses, only to find themselves longing for the purity of the lands of their youth. Disconnected from the natural world, Cronon argues, it became necessary for these urban transplants to maintain the myth that it was possible to escape into the wilderness — and in doing so, exculpate themselves from the dirty business of modernity.

To believe in this myth, though, is to ignore the actual extent to which human activity reshapes the natural world. The Great Lakes, which provide drinking water to over 40 million people, are hardly wellsprings of purity. Over the past decade, loopholes in the Clean Water Act have turned the waters of Lake Michigan into what one environmental report referred to as “a witches’ brew of pollutants.” Temperatures in the Great Lakes have been warming since the late 1990s, and environmentalists predict lower water levels, drought, and a decline in biodiversity.

There was a time when I loved the Pure Michigan ads because they mirrored the way the terrain of my childhood existed in my imagination. But when you live here year-round, it’s difficult to sustain the illusion. You begin to notice things: the frequent beach closings due to E. coli, the toxic algal blooms that marbleize the shallows of lakes with neon green foam. When I was a child, Lake Michigan would freeze each winter far into the perceivable distance. The ice covered more than half the lake and was thick enough that you could walk for miles toward the horizon. This past winter, only a thin lip of ice extended over the shoreline and was gone by early February.

Unlike the scandals in Flint and Detroit, which can be pinned on corruption and corporate greed, reports about drought and dead zones point to no clear villain. It’s difficult to read about them without feeling implicated. Still, these observable fluctuations are subtle, and it’s easy to dismiss them as the product of el Niño, or the meteorological fickleness that has always characterized this part of the country. As summer approaches, there are still days when the landscape resembles the image of itself reflected in the Pure Michigan ads, when sunrise finds the beaches empty and the water along the shoreline a serene and crystalline blue. In the light of a glorious morning, it’s tempting to believe that this is a place set apart: that the water itself is redemptive, that it will make us clean.