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Editor’s note: This story was written by Morgan Prokosch.

Despite the unknowns about the recent Winona Ryder Super Bowl commercial and its suboptimal portrayal of Winona, the local tourism agency leveraged the attention to promote Winona’s tourism, a representative told Saint Mary’s University of Minnesota students last Monday.

Cynthya Porter, a communications contractor for Visit Winona, said that the tourism agency was in a unique situation when it came to the recent Squarespace Super Bowl commercial that starred Winona Ryder and put the spotlight on the city of Winona. Porter said that she had been trying to get Ryder, who was born in Winona, to come to the city for years, but hadn’t ever been able to find a way to do that. Once Ryder finally came to film the commercial, which featured her sitting in the snow under a Winona sign creating a Squarespace website that highlights the city, Porter said that Visit Winona was originally left in the dark about the visit. She said that she only found out about it from talking to others. She said that Ryder’s team had minimal communication with the city, just enough to get permission to close down some streets, and that the city was told they had to keep it a secret. Also, when Ryder was actually in Winona, Visit Winona was told that it had to keep the news pretty quiet as well, and Porter said that was difficult to do from a public relations standpoint.

Porter also said that Visit Winona had no idea what the commercial was going to be like until it was premiered to the public, and that the team just had to wait to see how it would impact the city. When the commercial was finally released, Porter said that the people at Visit Winona knew they had to respond. She said that while the advertisement gave the town unimaginable national attention, the portrayal wasn’t necessarily positive. The commercial directed people to the featured website, called Welcome to Winona, and Porter said that many of the photographs displayed on the website, such as one of an empty parking lot, made Winona look “economically depressed.” She said that the photographs were not a good representation of everything Winona has to offer.

Despite the unflattering images, Porter said that the Visit Winona team was grateful for the national spotlight and wanted to try to take advantage of all of the free publicity by spinning the messaging to show Winona in a more positive light. They wanted to “grab the millions of eyes” of people in their target market that watched the Super Bowl, she said.

They decided to respond by creating a parody of the Welcome to Winona website that they called Welcome to the Rest of Winona. The parody website was made on Squarespace and used the same format as Ryder’s original website as a way to poke fun at it, Porter said. The parody website provided information and pictures showcasing everything that Winona has to offer, such as the abundance of outdoor recreational opportunities, like ice and rock climbing; the many arts and culture events, like the Marine Art Museum and street dances; and the beauty of the Winona landscape, she said. Porter said that the parody website allowed them to “tell our story” and display the vibrancy of Winona that Ryder’s original website ignored.

Besides the website, Visit Winona also utilized other techniques as part of the campaign to leverage the coverage, Porter said. She said that Squarespace’s original campaign also included creating a “Welcome to Winona” photobook that was made available for purchase, and all of the proceeds from the book went to charity. To further the parody, Visit Winona made a photobook of its own, titled “Winona in Pictures,” Porter said. “Winona in Pictures” features scenes of Winona captured by Visit Winona staff and social media followers, who could post their pictures of Winona on social media for the chance to be included in the book. Proceeds from “Winona in Pictures” will go to various local initiatives.

Visit Winona’s campaign also included a sweepstakes for the chance to win an all-expense paid trip to Winona. The prize package included an $800 airfare and travel credit, Bloedow’s donuts, canoe or kayak rentals, tickets to many local festivals, including the Great River Shakespeare Festival and the Boats and Bluegrass Festival, and much more.

Porter said that in the end, the Squarespace commercial was a positive development for Winona. She said that while a lot of the attention stopped at the original advertisement, much of it continued to Visit Winona’s follow-up as well. The Welcome to the Rest of Winona website has received 50,000 views and there were hundreds of entries in the sweepstakes, Porter said. She also said that the coverage also resulted in tens of millions of dollars of earned media, which means that it would have cost Winona that much money to pay for the amount of press coverage the city received as a result of the commercial. “That’s a whole lot of eyeballs on Winona,” she said.