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Stolen sign says a lot about Maine's struggles

I didn’t steal the “Open for Business” sign recently discovered to have gone missing beneath the “Welcome to Maine” sign on the turnpike in Kittery. And I haven’t a clue who did.

But the fact that someone went to the trouble and personal risk to steal it – the State Police have declared the theft a felony – speaks to the power of words in our increasingly ideological culture.

Slogans and tag lines have replaced prayers and purchased indulgences as the instruments of battle in the branding wars that have become the focus of our struggles for doctrinal purity.

I never liked the previous sign – “Maine, the way life should be.” It was glib, too clever by half and demeaning, as if Maine was a giant theme park and we its citizens were mere “associates” dressed in yellow slickers and giant moose costumes waving welcomes to our visiting “customers.”

While attempting to “brand” the place we live as quaint, beautiful and environmentally balanced, it insulted all the real, live, flesh-and-blood people who struggle to make lives for themselves in this wonderful but often difficult place.

Every time I saw that sign I wanted to shout, “Maine is not a northern branch of Disney World! It is a real place, inhabited by real people whose lives, like lives the world over, aren’t always the way we would like them to be. And we shouldn’t have to pretend to an unreality to attract people and businesses from away to come here.”

And “Open for Business,” while conveying a vastly different message, isn’t any better in the realm of reality.

It, too, is clever, contains several levels of meaning and purports to convey a message to those entering the state that reflects a consensus – this is who we are and what we want to say to you as you enter our home. The very fact that the sign was stolen gives the lie to that assumption.

For some, “Open for Business” conveys the simple message found on storefronts everywhere, telling those passing by, “Come on in; take a look around; we’ve got good stuff to sell you.”

At the same time, it contains the double entendre of “open” meaning “welcoming,” “encouraging,” “supportive of.”

Reviving the vitality of a business sector suffering the double blow of globalization and a financial-collapse-induced recession is undeniably the most important step we can take to restoring some degree of economic prosperity in Maine.

What could be more helpful, or innocuous, than conveying that message to everyone who passes through Kittery?

For others, however, “Open for Business” conveys images of red lights dimly illuminating scantily clad bodies and impersonal faces in harsh windows packed closely together along cobbled streets just below the central train station in Amsterdam.

“We’re desperate,” it says. “We can’t make a decent living from the talents of our hearts and minds, so we’ll sell our bodies and our souls.”

Extreme? Perhaps so. Not what the authors intended? Without doubt.

But from Freddie Vahlsing and the failed promises of sugar beet refineries a generation ago to fears of the potential destructive impact of LNG terminals and mountaintop wind complexes today, many in Maine have a reluctance to proclaim any marketing message as the first thing we say to our visitors – particularly when that message is a subject of hot debate in our own internal discussions.

Few of us would welcome visitors into our homes by saying, “Help my son kick his drug habit,” or “Tell my husband to lose some weight.” Why would we do the equivalent in welcoming visitors to our state?

Why spoil our greeting with double entendres – however clever – and not-so-subtle marketing hooks that, when read a second or third time, have all the appeal of an email from a Nigerian prince wishing to make a large deposit in a U.S. bank account?

If Maine has any brand identity to convey, it’s authenticity – the polar opposite of affectation and pretense. Why not welcome people driving through Kittery by saying what we mean: “Welcome to Maine – enjoy your stay and come again”?

Charles Lawton is senior economist for Planning Decisions, a public policy research firm.