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In an unusual move, Howard County has gone on TV to promote itself.

In a series of video vignettes airing on WBAL-TV, the area's NBC affiliate, county boosters are touting Howard as a great place to live, work and do business.

Although big tourist destinations have promoted themselves on television for years, those behind this project say such advertising is highly unusual for a relatively small, suburban county.

Aside from Howard, Anne Arundel County -- typically more a tourist destination than Howard -- is believed to be the only other suburban jurisdiction in the nation that touts itself on television.

"We're so used to seeing advertisements for Virginia and New York and Pennsylvania, but not for all the things in our own back yard," says Regina Ford of Ellicott City's Turf Valley Resort and Conference Center, one of the sponsors of the series. "People locally need to know what's here."

People outside the county have taken notice of the series of vignettes, called "Discover Howard County" and largely paid for by WBAL. In a national NBC competition last year, the Howard vignettes and a similar Anne Arundel campaign won the "Bright Idea" marketing award.

"The award is for a successful, unique and unusual idea in marketing," says Belinda Lee, a producer at WBAL. "Stations from all over the country submitted entries, but this type of thing is not really being done any place."

Howard's 13-part series ran for three months last spring. This year, it will run this month, next month and in June. Anne Arundel's annual campaign, which started in late 1995, runs during July, August and September.

The Howard spots are being broadcast throughout the day and night, mostly during local and national news programs, about 500 times in three months, Lee said.

The "Discover Howard County" idea evolved out of the similar project in Annapolis.

Annapolis first

That project begin in the summer 1995 when merchants feared they would lose business because of heavy road construction planned on the historic city's Main Street. They thought a promotional video series might help -- and they were right.

Even as construction crews tore up the street in front of their stores, merchants actually increased profits after WBAL ran a three-month series of short ads with vignettes called "Celebrate Annapolis," Lee says.

After the successful run, a WBAL producer -- who lives in Columbia's Owen Brown village -- thought a similar program might work in Howard.

"I thought Howard County would really be even more successful [than Annapolis] because people live there because they really, really want to be living there," says Joseph E. Ram of WBAL. "They love the whole premise that the place was built around, especially in Columbia."

Each of the spots starts with a straightforward -- if slightly amateur -- advertisement for a local business, such as Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia's Town Center, the Crab Shanty Restaurant in Ellicott City and Apple Ford in the Columbia Business Center.

County logo

The 15-second marketing pitches are followed by the "Discover Howard County" logo.

Then comes a 15-second mini-documentary about the high quality of life and enjoyable things to do in Howard County, including outdoors activities in Symphony Woods park, shopping at local farmers' markets and doing business with the county's high concentration of scientists and engineers.

With the exception of one 30-second piece produced by the Rouse Co., each of the segments was put together by WBAL crews. The station absorbed most of the production costs and is covering most of the costs of the air time, Lee said.

The programs fulfill the Federal Communications Commission's recommendation that TV stations provide community service, says David Fiske of the FCC. Stations are not required to provide such services, but the FCC does say they must "serve the public interest, convenience and necessity," he says.

Participation in the series costs advertisers about one-third the price of buying ads at regular rates, Lee says. Depending on how often their vignette is aired, most businesses pay a total of from $2,500 to $5,000.

"This makes such economical good sense we couldn't turn it down," says one of the Howard advertisers, Craig O'Donnell, co-owner of John S. Wilson Lumber Co. in West Friendship.

O'Donnell and his two brothers, who own the building supply company, paid $5,000 for their 15-second commercial to be aired about 30 times.

A good deal

He considers this a good deal for a company that has just 25 full-time employees and does almost no advertising.

A Nielsen Media Research study estimated that, last year, the Howard vignettes had more than 30 million "household impressions," Lee says.

In TV talk, that means 30 million sets of eyes or ears were exposed to the series.

"So far, this has been very successful for us," says Cathy A. Licktieg of Rouse. "After last years series, I'm sure a day didn't go by when someone didn't call or mention the spots. All kinds of people commented on it."

Says O'Donnell at the lumber company: "There was a lot of talk about it among our customers last year. I think it helped a lot."

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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