Thanks to my oldest son, I have become hooked, as it were, on the hit AMC television show Breaking Bad.
The show is set and produced in Albuquerque, New Mexico, and follows the story of Walter White, a struggling high school chemistry teacher who is diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer at the beginning of the series. He turns to a life of crime, producing and selling methamphetamine with a former student, Jesse Pinkman, with the aim of securing his family’s financial future before he dies. It’s compelling viewing – but aside from being a great show what is the impact on the setting – Albuquerque, New Mexico. It presents the city in an interesting yet contrasting light: on the one hand being very middle class America, swimming pools and suburbia and on the other as a hotbed of drug dealing, crime and Mexican cartels. It also shows the consequences, which are sometimes utterly appalling, of the choices the characters make. But, from a place branding perspective, is it good or bad for Albuquerque? Would I want to live there or even visit?
But what about the power of television and film?
I have a theory. New York City cops act the way they do because they have seen how New York cops act in the movies. Similarly, film and television can have a huge impact on how a destination acts in terms of their marketing activities.
In a marketing sense, nothing can have as great an impact on a Destination Brand than careful usage of mass media, especially film and television. When we visit cities such as London, New York, San Francisco we more or less know what to expect based on the media picture we have been influenced by. As a kid I watched programmes like The Odd Couple, Streets of San Francisco, Kojak and Bergerac. Films like Bullitt, Puppet on a Chain, Notting Hill and any of the James Bond movies all brought destinations and places to life in vivid technicolor. It made me want to live in New York, visit San Francisco and travel the world. That’s the impact of film and TV on our lives.
UK tourism has enjoyed a huge boost from increased visitor numbers to TV and film locations such as The Da Vinci Code, Gosford Park and Balamory. Frighteningly, I am told 20% of Americans visiting Scotland do so because they’ve seen Braveheart. The Harry Potter films alone have led to a 120% increase in visitor numbers to Ainwick Castle in Northumberland, a significant increase in tourism to the region.
So what about Breaking Bad? With its seedy plot of drugs and crime is it good or bad for Albuquerque?
In some respects the sage advice of P.T. Barnum, the great American showman, could apply: ‘I don’t care what they say about me, just make sure they spell my name right!’
“When Breaking Bad began airing five seasons ago, we were less than thrilled by the subject matter, which is based on a fictional character and story,” says Dale Lockett, head of the Albuquerque Convention & Visitors Bureau. But given its popularity, “people are traveling to our city to see the locations featured in the show and then spending time at our attractions, restaurants and hotels,” he adds.
One local tour operator, the ABQ Trolley Co., added a three-hour, $60 per person Breaking Bad tour timed to the shows season premiere – and promptly sold out all seven scheduled departures.
Without doubt it seems whatever the subject matter, TV and film are powerful mediums for locations and places. Added to that its a compelling TV show.