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Smithsonian plans 1st ad campaign to broaden reach

WASHINGTON — The most-visited museums in the U.S. are about to launch their first-ever national advertising campaign to connect more people with the Smithsonian Institution online, in schools or in the museums themselves.

The 166-year-old museum complex unveiled its ad strategy Thursday with a new tagline declaring the Smithsonian and its research are “Seriously Amazing” for learning. The goal is to reintroduce the museums as more than once-in-a-lifetime destinations.

By October, ads will appear on websites nationwide and on buses and billboards in five cities: New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Washington. The ads feature a diverse set of young characters posing quirky questions that can be answered at the website

One question reads: “What exactly does a bear do in the woods?” An online link will feature live cameras at Smithsonian research stations in the wild. Another asks: “What has given us water from Mars and daggers from India?”

The Smithsonian spent $1 million developing a brand strategy two years ago. The new ad campaign cost an additional $1.4 million, paid for by a mix of private and federal funds. Target Corp. has paid for some of the creative work at its ad agency, Wolff Olins.

While the museums are on track to host 30 million people this year, Smithsonian Secretary Wayne Clough said he wants to make sure they will be relevant to young people in 10 years and beyond.

“What we’re trying to do is to get people to better understand the entire proposition of the Smithsonian,” he said, adding that many don’t know about its vast research offerings, such as the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., the Smithsonian Tropical Research Center in Panama, or its many lesson plans for teachers.

“So, while you might say 30 million is a lot of people, that still leaves 320 million Americans who didn’t come,” Clough said. “You might as well, with the web, reach the world, right?”

The Smithsonian surveyed 1,200 people nationwide and found it has high name recognition at 89 percent, and 51 percent said they had visited the Smithsonian at least once.

Its reputation began to sag, though, among younger people and ethnic and racial minorities. Many said they were “dragged” to the Smithsonian on field trips or vacations. Some thought the Smithsonian was elitist, outdated or just something their parents would care about, said project manager Pherabe Kolb.

“Are we sure, that 10 years from now, that young Latinos are going to be coming to the Smithsonian?” Clough said. “Well, maybe not unless we connect with them now.”

The ad campaign will feature young characters representing different parts of the Smithsonian, from arts and history museums to science research, to show it’s a place for active learning, Kolb said. Its theme is “Questions come alive at the Smithsonian” and aims to reach adults ages 18 to 34 and moms who have teens or young children.

With a modest budget, the ad buy is fairly small. Outdoor ads will be targeted at some of the biggest cities to reach the most people, Kolb said. But more people will likely see the ads online at news, information or educational websites.

Clough said the visibility can build broader support for the Smithsonian as it prepares to launch a major fundraising campaign so that it’s less reliant on taxpayer funds. He said the Smithsonian needs to reach more people.

“This institution is one of the basic institutions of democracy,” Clough said. “Everybody should be able to get some benefit from this institution. They all pay taxes, and that means they help pay for us.”