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Smearing Toronto: A bad case of Falls advertising?

Dear Toronto,

We think your city is a crime-ridden, graffiti-laden, gridlocked urban prison that you should escape now. Please spend your time and money here instead.


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The Niagara Parks Commission

That's not the official script of a dozen new television, Internet and radio ads aimed at Torontonians, but to some, it might as well be.

In a bid to stanch a deepening financial bleed wrought by a drop in visits from the United States, the Ontario government agency that maintains Niagara Falls has turned to - and, curiously, on - its big-city neighbours in Toronto.

The Niagara Parks Commission's $300,000 ad campaign - parts of which paint the city as a place of wailing car alarms, spray-bombed alleys and bicycles stripped of their wheels - has Toronto officials not only annoyed, but mystified.

Acting mayor Joe Pantalone, a board member of Tourism Toronto, wondered why the parks commission would resort to "an unnecessary cheap shot" when the city has traditionally been an ally in promoting Ontario to the world.

"Whenever we advertise Toronto internationally and nationally, we always say, 'Come to Toronto and go to Niagara Falls,'" Mr. Pantalone said. "I would hope that they realize that a mistake has been made … and simply pull those ads and come up with something more constructive."

The acting mayor said he hopes Ontario's Tourism Ministry, which oversees the self-funding parks commission at arm's length, "nicely and informally tells it that it didn't do the right thing here."

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Government spokeswoman Denelle Balfour said that "the ministry is aware of the concerns," and had been in contact with Fay Booker, who chairs the commission's politically appointed governing board.

In an interview, Ms. Booker said the commission will "take another look at the ads," and that she will raise the matter with commission managers.

"We're not trying to take unnecessary pokes at anyone," Ms. Booker said, adding that the ads were meant to promote Niagara as a quiet getaway, and that "trying to grab people's attention is not the easiest thing to do."

But David Whitaker, president and CEO of Tourism Toronto, said "there's a big difference between a strategy that works and a strategy that gets attention, and smart marketers know the difference."

There's nothing wrong with Niagara promoting the "take-a-break-from-the-big-city experience," Mr. Whitaker said. But attempting to woo Torontonians by insulting their hometown with crime references, even subtle ones, "is over-reaching, and raises a flag," he said.

"I am a bit disappointed, mostly because of our relationship with Niagara," Mr. Whitaker said. He added, "It's not lost on me [that the parks commission]is a Crown corporation."

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The concept for the ad campaign, which includes four television spots on two Toronto stations for six weeks, plus eight more clips online, was the brainchild of parks commission executive Joel Noden and his marketing staff.

Mr. Noden, whose job is to generate revenue to offset the $80-million in annual costs related to running the parks, has been under pressure to reverse a steady slide in Falls visits. Americans, who made up 70 per cent of visitors in 2005, now account for less than 30 per cent, and the 125-year-old commission has recorded unprecedented losses for several years running.

The commission has been trying to boost visits from close-to-home markets such as Toronto, and from overseas, where Mr. Noden frequently travels at considerable agency expense to promote the parks.

Asked about the ad campaign, he said it was 2-1/2 years in the making and included focus group sessions with downtown Toronto residents between the ages of 35 and 55, who liked the ads.

"We're not looking to offend anyone; we just want [Torontonians]to know that there's a Niagara they might not have experienced," Mr. Noden said, adding that he's a frequent and enthusiastic Toronto tourist.

Mr. Whitaker of Tourism Toronto said he would invite Mr. Noden to spend "a fabulous weekend in Toronto … and we'll show him the Toronto that we are quite proud of." A city, he noted, that is on track for a record year in hotel occupancy.

Told of the offer, Mr. Noden said he would gladly accept.

"A free weekend in Toronto? I'd love it," he said, "but he doesn't have to convince me it's a great place to be."

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