Make the Connection

My career as a producer of television commercials was short lived, but personally rewarding. The results can still be seen on the internet thanks to the ethereal archival qualities of You Tube. On my own Archives page you can access the link to three of these commercials which comprised a series entitled Make the Connection.

Built on the lessons learned and described in last week’s message, the series was designed to both publicize the Mid-Continent Railway Museum and to help orient people on what to expect once they arrived on the property. All with as little cost as possible.

We knew from our simple customer surveys that two-thirds of the museum’s daily visitors were there for the first time. And of those who had been to the museum before, their prior visit was likely as a child in the company of their parents or as part of a school field trip. Now they were back with their own children in tow. The time lapse for them meant that things had changed enough to be almost as new as for our first time guests.

The Depot was the first commercial in the series. The content guided people into an authentic 1894 structure as the starting point of their visit, where they could purchase a ticket for the train ride and find the museum’s underutilized gift shop.

The Train Ride was released a few weeks later. The live action shots showed people boarding the train from the depot platform, listening to the information imparted by the conductor, and enjoying the scenery along the route. Showing people setting inside a passenger coach was an important statement as so many callers to the museum’s office asked if the ride was aboard a full sized train.

The Collection was third in the series. A simple goal of this piece was to answer one of the most often asked questions by guests once they had arrived on the property: Where’s the museum? (The most often asked question was about the location of the restrooms). An operating railroad museum is by nature an outdoor museum. People accustomed to seeing artifacts displayed inside a big box were confused by the layout, so the video sequences and the text used in the commercial gave people permission to walk among the equipment parked on sidings and to explore the sheds housing the wooden car collection.

All three commercials reflected the strategy used with our radio ads; a slow pace in the voiceover delivery supported by soothing background music to literally underscore our image as a safe, relaxing and enjoyable experience for everyone in the family. For the musical score we used Mozart’s Clarinet Concerto, an idea inspired by the soundtrack from the movie Out of Africa.

Production costs are always an issue and they drove the decisions on how to structure the commercials so that each one told their respective stories while maintaining a consistency that linked the three together. The hope was that without looking at your television screen you could hear the narrative and the music and know it was about Mid-Continent.

We opened each commercial with historic photographs drawn from a private collection of postcards on loan to the museum and accessible through its website. Then we transitioned to live action shots composed to look similar to the postcard image. Filming was done by a local television station who knew about our minimal budget. So to help keep the costs down they did the filming for all three segments in one day. And since we wanted to have the first commercial ready before the museum opened for the summer, we were forced to do the filming during the pre-season when the attendance was limited to senior citizen and school groups. The sparse attendance was not the full impression we wanted to make, but it was affordable.

Matching the historic black and white images with the color video of current operations gave us our unifying theme of what railroading was like in the past and how it can be experienced today. It also gave us our tag line: At the Mid-Continent Railway Museum, make the connection.

One departure from our usual print and radio advertising was that we kept the content generic, meaning no dates or prices were mentioned in the text or shown on the screen. This gave the commercials a longer shelf life, which allowed us to amortize the costs over multiple seasons. The commercials were also more flexible as to when they were shown and could be used each summer or as filler between special events.

For me a personal goal was to set a standard for what the museum needed to be doing, educating the public as well as entertaining them. So the commercials were also meant to have an internal impact by motivating the members who lead the organization to think in terms of the visitors’ experience as opposed to the member/volunteers’ self described impression of being by the members for the members.

This ulterior motive may have been too high of an expectation for me to project onto three short commercials. What we created, although aesthetically pleasing, may have been more of what I wanted the museum experience to be instead of what it really was. But you can judge that for yourselves. You can follow the links from the Archives page to view the commercials and then visit Mid-Continent’s own website to find out when the next train departs.

In my opinion it is well worth the effort to make that connection.

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