The History of the “Talking Proud” Campaign

This story originally appeared on Views of Buffalo

Buffalo’s Talking Proud campaign of the 1980s was a huge
booster for the city in a time where it was bombarded nationally with negative
comments, sometimes even coming from the city’s own residents. It took years to
develop and almost never happened, but thanks to the perseverance of Pat Donlon
the long road to actually launching the campaign was a success.

The concept for the Talking Proud campaign has its roots in
the late 1970s when Fred Dentinger had finally had enough about all the
negative comments about Buffalo. He served as chairman of the Buffalo Area
Chamber of Commerce between 1977 and 1978 and believed in defending Buffalo
against all criticisms. Dentinger never got a chance to start the campaign
because of his other duties, but primarily because he had to deal with the
Blizzard of 1977.

Dave Smith, who succeeded Chuck Light as the president of
the Buffalo Area Chamber of Commerce, shared Dentinger’s defensive attitude and
sought to set the record straight. The board of directors instructed him to
create a program which would improve Buffalo’s self-image problem. Donlon, the
public relations director for the Chamber, was charged with creating the
Talking Proud campaign when Smith was recruited.

There had already been a pride boosting campaign for Buffalo
in the 1960s, but it had very little substance and was not effective. It was
primarily a “feel-good” campaign with a slogan stating, “Boost Buffalo: It’s
Good For You.” The campaign only ran for a few months and then faded into
obscurity.

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Donlon used the 1960s campaign as a sort of template, but
injected more substance into the Talking Proud campaign to ensure it stuck. The
first attempt at gathering a group of agencies and creative people fell on its
face because people rarely showed up or sent their junior staff who were
unqualified to take on the challenge. Donlon informed Smith the approach wasn’t
working and suggested the only way to get traction was to make an initial
investment and assume the role of a client.

The change proved effective and the campaign was beginning
to finally move in the right direction. They assembled a plan and had a
competition between four finalists to determine which would be best suited for
the campaign. Ultimately, they settled on Alden Schutte who proposed taking a
survey of the Buffalo area residents to gauge their perception about the city
so an effective campaign could be created.

When the Talking Proud campaign officially launched in
September 1980 it was a huge success. Donlon remembers the launch well. “As we
were leaving the hotel, Dave Smith said to me, ‘A month from now we’ll either
be heroes or we’ll be looking for new jobs.’ Needless to say, we both remained
gainfully employed at the Chamber a month later.” There were radio spots,
commercials, and of course the famed Talking Proud jingle. There was also a lot
of different merchandise that followed including tens of thousands of Talking
Proud pins and the Talking Proud board game to name a few.

Even though the campaign was a success, Buffalo still faced
criticism. “In a morning show on CBS, Morley Safer took a shot at Buffalo along
the lines of questioning why anyone would want to build a new hotel [the
Hilton] on the waterfront. He cited Love Canal and made remarks that the region
was contaminated with dangerous waste chemicals,” said Donlon.

Stakeholders, news reporters, and residents were outraged at
Safer’s comments. Roger Parkinson the publisher of the Courier-Express extended
an invitation to Safer to come to Buffalo to prove him wrong. Safer obliged,
but stated he stood by his comments during an impromptu news conference upon
his arrival. Donlon remembers, “Out of earshot of reporters, Safer noted that
he was impressed with the treatment he was being accorded. He added that there
might be something valuable in knocking other cities; perhaps he would turn his
attention to Paris or London next time, in anticipation of red-carpet treatment
there.”

After his stay in Buffalo, Safer publically admitted that he
was completely mistaken in his previous comments and retracted his initial
statement. He was gracious that residents treated him well despite his comments
and had a wonderful time taking in the sites and enjoying the city.

Another crucial element to the success of Talking Proud was
the Buffalo Bills. “Thanks to the Bills, Talking Proud achieved national
exposure in TV coverage,” said Donlon, “We received inquiries even from cities
in other countries, especially Canada.” The jingle was played at the end of the
first quarter at a Bills game and the fans went wild because just before the
quarter ended the Bills quarterback completed a touchdown pass. From then on,
the fans associated the sound clip with the team’s success and it was played
regularly at the games.

The Talking Proud campaign was recognized with the top award
from the American Chamber of Commerce Executives Association’s Communications
Council in 1981. Syracuse and Rochester used Talking Proud as a model for their
own self-image campaigns and were similarly recognized the following two years.
It lives on today, more than 30 years after its launch. Drivers along Delaware
Avenue can see advance-warning street signs bearing the Talking Proud logo.

Entry image: Pat Donlon proudly sports his campaign polo shirt and the Talking Proud board game 

 

Talking Proud song played over new commercial for Buffalo

About the author  ⁄ Mike Puma

Writing for Buffalo Rising since 2009 covering development news, historic preservation, and Buffalo history. Works professionally in historic preservation.

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