Successful tourism destinations frequently use the icons of their past to attract visitors. Having promoted tourism for about 15 years of my professional career, I’ve learned that this marketing technique can present potent and engaging images to attract multiple generations of visitors — that is, if the icons are relevant.
But Atlantic City has too few relevant historic icons left. The Boardwalk — widely accepted as the first anywhere — thankfully still exists and continually changes to stay relevant to today’s visitors. Convention Hall was renovated to become Boardwalk Hall, the city’s award-winning main event arena. Steel Pier has weathered changes in the country’s appetite for entertainment by morphing into an amusement pier and regularly providing new, exciting rides, while paying homage to its past. The city’s storied nightclubs have become high-energy dance clubs appealing to a new generation.
Miss America also ranks as one of Atlantic City’s best-known icons, but its relevancy is highly questionable.
The current scandal brings new attention to the beleaguered pageant. While it presents an uncomfortable situation, the initial intuitive, knee-jerk reaction to withdraw funding and drop all association with it may not be the most productive in the long term. It may save face for Dick Clark Productions and the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority, but in the long term, is that what’s really best for Atlantic City?
Miss America, after all, is inexorably linked to Atlantic City. She was born and raised here and attracted positive, international media attention in her heyday. Whether this scandal ends on a positive or negative note, that will forever be a part of Atlantic City’s history.
Make no mistake — I am not a ”pageant person.” To me, the idea of asking women to parade around in bathing suits and evening gowns is insipid and insulting. But I am a fan of Atlantic City, and I hold out hope that the city will be linked to only positive, relevant icons.
For Miss America to once again be a relevant icon, though, a lot of work needs to be done.
Even though the pageant started out as a bathing beauty competition, degrading, derogatory and misogynistic attitudes have no place within any organization, particularly one that has touted itself in recent years as a scholarship organization that promotes an updated version of the ideal female role model.
The organization needs to be gutted of anyone who holds those viewpoints, as well as those who have let it permeate within the organization — nationally and in each state. They need to be replaced by a group that consists of a majority of women, including younger generations, encompassing all walks of life. That’s just the first step.
The second step is for the newly formed organization to decide who Miss America really is and what the competition should look like in today’s world.
If it is a scholarship organization, why is there a swimsuit, evening gown or talent component? Certainly, there are other ways to ensure that the competitors are poised, fit and able to withstand the rigorous schedule required of Miss America.
If it is a beauty pageant, why put them through the agony of a talent competition or interviews?
A deep and sincere examination of these issues is necessary to take Miss America into an enduring, meaningful and relevant future.
This presents a golden opportunity for Atlantic City’s movers and shakers to recreate an icon that will shine a positive spotlight on the city. City government, CRDA, the Greater Atlantic City Chamber of Commerce and women’s groups could work as true partners with the Miss America Organization to explore these issues, create a dynamic, respectful organization and produce a new Miss America competition.
Rather than withdraw funds, perhaps a portion could be put into this effort and the rest be put into reserve for use if and when an acceptable solution and resulting broadcast partner are found.
The process will be tedious and difficult. Distancing oneself from the pageant is easy. But the best solutions are rarely the easiest ones.
Elaine Shapiro Zamansky, of Northfield, is a former media relations manager for the Atlantic City Convention & Visitors Authority and spokeswoman for the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. Her communications and marketing career also has included work for businesses and nonprofits.