COMMENTARY: Mitten controversy leads to helping hands
By Kevin Binversie
The mittens are off!
Verbal fists are flying in what is becoming tourism marketing fight of this century!
Two states — boundaries formed millennia ago by natural forces and almost two centuries ago by politics — look a lot like the human hand in a mitten. Because of that, Wisconsin and Michigan were locked in mostly media-created hand-to-hand combat for the better part of a month over which looks more like the body part.
The origins are pretty simple. Over the past year, the Wisconsin Department of Tourism has been using a campaign that stages various objects to look like the shape of Wisconsin. In the autumn campaign, for example, a leaf was made in the shape of Wisconsin to help sell the state’s colorful fall foliage. For the start of its winter campaign Dec. 1 they made the state look like a wool mitten.
That was throwing down the gauntlet for Michigan.
Who knew they could be so territorial? After the Wisconsin campaign was communicated over to Michigan, a number of residents lost it.
“The Mitten is ours!” one outraged tweeter twitted. A singer-songwriter even went on YouTube and performed a song pronouncing his love for the glove with “Michigan, the Only Mitten State.”
“The funny thing about this is our counterparts in Michigan Tourism don’t see what the big fuss is since we work together with them often to promote regional tourism,” said Lisa Marshall a spokeswoman for the Tourism Department. “I don’t think there isn’t a school child in this state who hasn’t been told they can use their hand as a map of the Wisconsin.”
In fact, this very trick has been done in television ads before. In 1992, a relatively-unknown Middleton state senator on a shoe-string budget running for the United States Senate highlighted his tours of the state in one of his commercials with a tagline of “He knows Wisconsin like the back of his hand.” The quirky ads worked and helped land Democrat Russ Feingold the first of his three terms.
So while their respective residents may be fighting over which is the real Mitten State, the tourism departments of the Badger State and the Great Lakes State have turned the controversy both on its head and a good cause.
On Tuesday began the “Mitten Love” campaign. As hokey as the name sounds, what it plans to do is anything but. Both Wisconsin and Michigan tourism departments have begun collecting pairs of mittens for those who could go without in the winter months.
In Wisconsin, you can drop off new or gently used pairs of mittens or gloves at one of the state’s 35 tourism and visitor centers or local chambers of commerce where they will be collected on Jan. 15. Michigan, on the other hand, is asking those wishing to donate to give directly to charities.
Is there a contest aspect attached to see which state collects the most pairs? “No, not officially,” Marshall said. Such a stance does make sense. After all, charity shouldn’t be a spectator sport.
Besides, Wisconsin beating Michigan State earlier this month for the right to play in the Rose Bowl was probably more than enough victory in one year for Wisconsinites.
Kevin Binversie is a Wisconsin native who has been blogging on the state’s political culture for more than eight years. He has served in the George W. Bush administration from 2007-2009, worked at the Heritage Foundation and has worked on numerous Wisconsin Republican campaigns in various capacities, most recently as research director for Ron Johnson for Senate. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.