We tried to advertise Belfast ... then the troubles began

Great people, great pubs. But has the city anything else to offer tourists? We asked three agencies to sell the city ... they found it hard going
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The Independent Online
After 25 years of war there is peace. Now Northern Ireland, and Belfast in particular, is keen to attract commerce and tourism. Belfast is opening itself to the world in the way that Prague and Budapest did at the end of the Cold War. But while Northern Ireland is beautiful, Belfast is not. The north's capital is more Leeds than Prague; a hardworking (when there is any work), hard-bitten town, built on linen mills and shipyards, its bigotry and violence are leavened with the driest, blackest humour this side of Brooklyn.

The city council's brochure, Belfast and Proud, lists the many attractions: the theatres, museums, bars, conference facilities and shopping centres. It even reminds us that Belfast has one of the lowest crime rates in the world, and probably the lowest of any European city.

Which is true, if you don't count the Troubles, which the brochure does not mention once in 22 pages. Perhaps the council felt there was no need, as that was all outsiders know about the place.

The political voyeurs have started arriving; there are bus tours of the murals and graffiti. But Belfast remains a hard town to sell.

We asked three leading advertising agencies to tackle the problem. The brief was simple: devise a poster and a slogan to form the core of a campaign to flog Belfast as a tourist destination.

The results are remarkably similar. All three have reverted to the bog standard of marketing Ireland: the crack. Great people, great pubs. And so they are - but for a city desperate to present itself as cultured, modern and European, which would prefer comparisons with Frankfurt rather than Dublin, this familiar portrayal of the joshing, boozing Irish must come as something of a disappointment. As a peace dividend, it seems a rather meagre return.

Chris Willingham

Account director

Saatchi & Saatchi

We did some research to find out what Belfast has to offer in terms of positive attributes such as historical landmarks, cultural attractions, a thriving night life and large expanses of greenery. What shone through overwhelmingly was not something you see but something you feel - the warmth and friendliness of the city.

This has been massively enhanced by the ceasefire and the new spirit of reconciliation. There's a fresh and infectious atmosphere of hope and optimism - history is being made. It's this unique feeling that we've captured in our advertising.

We've understood that the violence that afflicted the city up until August was supported only by a small minority. The majority of the population had no desire to get caught up in it, despite what the media may have wanted us to believe. It's the sentiments of these people that we have tried to represent.

We've deliberately adopted a highly provocative and realistic tone, using the sort of colloquialisms that in the past some members of each community would have abused each other with but, in the spirit of reconciliation, might now be backhanded compliments. What were terms of hatred are now perhaps becoming friendly terms of recognition.

The campaign sets out to dramatise just how friendly Belfast is these days. If such bitter enemies can make friends in Belfast, the visitor most certainly can.

We are inviting tourists to come and see that the people of Belfast do not avoid this issue but, ironically, use it as a means of healing the wound.

Steven Hess

Account Planner

Euro RSCG Wenek Gosper

Despite high levels of awareness of the city and its close historical associations, there seems to be no compelling reason for people to visit Belfast other than to see relatives. Dublin appears to be the number one choice for potential visitors to the island: "It's good fun." However, Belfast is also seen, to some degree, as standing for Irishness - having a good time and drinking.

We have chosen to concentrate on trying to develop Belfast as a short break (weekend destination), aiming particularly at younger adults, aged roughly between 20 and 35. This age group are the biggest users of short breaks. Only 44 per cent of 25 to 34-year-olds have never been on a short break, compared with 74 per cent of people over 65.

Some of our previous work indicates that they are also the most adventurous in terms of destination and type of holiday considered.

However, dissatisfaction with short breaks abroad stems from excessive cost and length of stay being too short to be enjoyable. Indeed, some feel they would prefer to stay in this country.

We believe Belfast is ideally suited - it's close to mainland Britain. Among some people, the city is renowned for its friendliness and the liveliness and excitement of its pubs. But in marketing Belfast, we believe that it is impossible to separate the city from the troubles of the last 25 years.

What we have attempted to communicate is a recognition of the city's history portrayed in an honest and witty way. We've mentioned it, without mentioning it. We have built on the notion of Belfast celebrating its rebirth; the message is that you can take part in this piece of history. A good analogy is the fall of the Berlin wall.

Billy Mawhinney

Art director

S P Lintas

I was born in Portavogie on the County Down coast and worked in Belfast until the early Eighties.

I know that the people who live and work there and the people in the rest of the province deserve medals for what they have had to put up with over the years.

I feel it's wrong to attract people who just want to see old sites of ghoulish interest, especially now that everyone is talking about the peace we're trying to achieve.

The people of Belfast are as warm and wonderful hosts as you are likely to get anywhere. They have the capacity to turn the city into a tourist attraction, and I hope they're given a peaceful chance to do it.