Just How Bad Is 'Jersey Shore' for New Jersey's Brand?

State Is No Stranger to Bad PR, but Are Snooki & Co. Making It Worse?

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The cast of 'Jersey Shore'
The cast of 'Jersey Shore' Credit: MTV /Josh Kessler

When MTV 's "Jersey Shore" won a $420,000 tax break from New Jersey's Economic Development Authority this week, local politicians predictably expressed their outrage -- with one notable exception.

The mayor of Seaside Heights -- where the cast members live, work at the Shore Store, and fist pump at Club Karma -- said the show rakes in money for his town, making the tax credit worthwhile. "The boost to the economy certainly shows," he told the Star-Ledger. "When they are here, this place is busy. A lot of the business folks here appreciate that ."

So is the cast members' debauchery really hurting New Jersey's image? Who really thinks most residents resemble Snooki or The Situation anyway?

Or, conversely, has the state maybe already taken so many knocks after "The Sopranos" and all the Turnpike jokes that becoming the punchline of a new cultural phenomenon doesn't even matter?

While most viewers might not think the state's actual residents like to fist-pump any more than "Sopranos" fans believed the whole state was Mafia, the show diverts attention from the state's attractive qualities, branding and tourism experts said. Facing budget shortfalls, many states have slashed their tourism marketing budgets, and New Jersey made a $2 million reduction in 2010, increasing the challenge of marketing the state.

"I don't believe anyone seriously believes ["Jersey Shore"] is what New Jersey is about, but it takes away from trying to promote assets and benefits of the state," said Virginia Sheridan, president of M. Silver Associates, a New York-based PR agency specializing in travel and tourism. She noted that Atlantic City is trying to stage a comeback, with new high-end casinos and hotels opening, and the declasse buzz around "Jersey Shore" can't be helping.

Building a brand around something distinct is important for anyone, but Jersey-themed reality shows -- also including "Jerseylicious" and the local "Real Housewives" franchise -- put the state a little too conspicuously on the map for conflict and fighting, according to Mike Cherenson, exec VP at Success Communications in Parsippany, N.J.

"It's certainly enhanced the visibility of New Jersey, but that doesn't always correlate to enhanced reputation," said Mr. Cherenson, a past chair of the Public Relations Society of America. While "Sopranos" detractors said the series put the state in a bad light -- even as it spawned a cottage industry of tours in northern New Jersey, akin to the more recent Seaside Heights fascination -- viewers remembered that the show was fiction, he said. Audiences have a greater tendency to take reality shows at face value.

In terms of tangible consequences, Mr. Cherenson thinks it could make someone think twice about moving to the state. "There might be some second-guessing: 'Is that a place I want to raise my family?'" he said.

Some still argue, however, that all press is ultimately good press. According to Diane Wieland, director of tourism for Cape May County, the show gave her a leg up when she attended a travel show in Montreal last winter -- even if visitors to some of the tony Shore towns she promotes, such as Cape May and Stone Harbor, would cringe at any association with "Jersey Shore." People kept asking her about "Jersey Shore," she said, giving her an opening to talk up Cape May's beaches.

"Hey, at least they know where New Jersey is ," Ms. Wieland said. "It was a conversation-starter where we could say we are the Jersey Shore and this is what we have to offer."

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