What’s in a name? For Regina, it’s a whole lot of controversy

You say Regina, they say “the city that rhymes with fun.” And then they called the whole thing off.

What was supposed to be a simple rebranding exercise for the City of Regina’s tourist marketing body has ended up making international headlines over claims the organization used misogynistic slogans that mayor Sandra Masters called “sexist and wrong.”

The Experience Regina brand was introduced last week, with the name change and branding inspired by the song of the same name that was created by two American visitors in 2008. Their original video has since garnered 726,000 views on YouTube, and was featured during a segment on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon.

But it was the use of the two controversial slogans based on the fact that they city’s name rhymes with “vagina”—”Show us your Regina” and the more problematic “The city that rhymes with fun” that caused the story to blow up, earning it widespread coverage across Canada as well as by international media outlets including The Washington Post,  the Daily Mail, and the New York Post.

The outcry almost immediately drew an apology from Experience Regina CEO Tim Reid, who said in a Facebook post this week that “…it was clear that we fell short of what is expected from our amazing community with some of the slogans that we used. Regardless of our intent, the impact is valid, and for that, we apologize.”

In a subsequent post attributed to Reid, vice-president of tourism, marketing and communications Tara Osipoff and the Experience Regina team, the organization pledged to be “more stringent in evaluating all aspects of our brand to ensure it aligns with the standards of our community” and involving “more diverse stakeholder groups” in future decision-making.

But as with the Experience Regina brand, “The city that rhymes with fun” is actually very familiar to Regina residents. Rolling Stones frontman Mick Jagger used the line during a 2006 concert and it’s also referenced during the opening scene of the Ryan Reynolds movie Deadpool. Meanwhile, the city’s rhyme with “vagina” has also been referenced in movies like Goon and Barely Lethal.

On its surface, the campaign appears to be an attempt by the tourism marketer to capitalize on earned media, which seems to be borne out by a section of a 2022 Tourism Regina document outlining the rebrand that was shared with The Message this week and mentions “embracing ‘Experience Regina’ and ‘city that rhymes with fun.'”

In a later section dedicated to tone of voice, the document says that Tourism Regina “has always used a fun, excited, and optimistic tone of voice in all communication platforms,” and that it won’t need to be changed drastically. However, the document also states that “we will need to be edgier and be bolder in delivery.”

Toronto’s Trajectory worked extensively with the city of Regina last year, before it shifted tourism responsibilities from Economic Development Regina to what would become Experience Regina. The result of that place-branding exercise, “Grow Your World Here,” is still supporting the city’s economic development strategy, but not its tourism strategy, said Trajectory’s chief strategist, Jeannette Hanna. There was, Hanna told The Message via email, “nothing sexy” in the original positioning, which instead reflects the city’s focus on growth.

What’s not clear is how the controversial slogans made their way into the public realm. Brown Communications Group, the Regina agency behind the entity’s new name and visual identity, issued a statement on Facebook categorically denying any involvement in creating the slogans.

“[W]e haven’t had any involvement in the unofficial slogans that are being shared on social media,” read the statement in part. “Nor were we consulted about their use.” Contacted by The Message, the agency’s president, Lori Romanoski, said the agency had no further contact beyond its official statement.

Longtime creative director Karen Howe, who now runs The Township Group, said that the campaign “provides bafflement on so many levels.” The one plaudit she gives the campaign: “The sexism is usually far more discreet. At least they’re letting it all hang out.”

Any campaign must have a clear idea about the intended audience, and the message it wants to convey, she said. “If we’re responsible with our clients’ brands, we start with ‘Who are we talking to? Unless your target group is horny teenage boys, I don’t think anybody’s done a good job here.”

“It’s very disappointing, and as a woman, I think ‘What year are we in?…I just so hoped we were beyond that.”

Cathy Mitchell, managing director and executive vice-president with Narrative PR, said that using innuendo requires applying a “filter” to the work to determine if it could potentially be offensive.

“I find it hard to believe that no one stopped to consider how it would play out,” she said. Because it’s hard to know if those questions were raised, and by who, it’s not possible to say who might be more culpable. But everyone bears that responsibility.”

Casual sexism in advertising isn’t anything new, even in these supposedly more enlightened times. In 2016, for example, appliance maker LG Canada earned the enmity of women across the country when it ran a campaign for its Twin Wash system which leaned into the old trope that laundry duty is the sole domain of women. The ads featured product shots accompanied by copy suggesting that less time on laundry meant more time for activities like mani-pedis and shopping.

Experience Regina did not respond to interview requests, but Reid told Global News on Thursday that he never saw the controversial slogans until they appeared on the Experience Regina website on March 17. Reid said that the organization is currently investigating how the slogans were made public, but admitted that the approval process was “not effective.”

And if, say, the Alberta hamlet of Balzac is contemplating a place-branding exercise, it should probably consider this a cautionary tale.

— With files from David Brown

Chris Powell