In Michigan last week, the billboard below popped up off of an interstate highway near Flint:

(image, and story, available here)

It certainly isn’t the first time that an advertisement has left out, or at least obscured, the sponsor or the products. (See our own Duets Blog discussion of a Coca Cola ad with sparse information here).

Given that Michigan is the largest producer of blueberries in the United States, there were a few usual suspects: the Michigan Blueberry Growers’ Association, Flint’s largest blueberry farm, local farmer’s markets, the annual blueberry festival… No, no, no, and no. Not us. So who was actually behind it? And what were they trying to say?

As the mystery grew, so did the buzz. Michiganders and Flintones alike were intrigued. Local and even national media picked up the story. Those behind “mystery ads” often have that as the main goal. If done correctly, it can generate buzz and get you some free publicity (A few recent examples occurred in New York and Milwaukee). Why does it work? Maybe because we’re normally bombarded with information, whereas an ad like this invites the viewer to stop and think. It invites viewers and consumers to participate in the meaning of the message. Of course, that is the risk, too. The advertiser gives up some control over the message to the public, at least temporarily. If the public coalesces around a singular and unintended meaning, it might be too late for the advertiser to redirect the meaning to whatever the original intent may have been.

But back to blueberries. “I’m concerned about blueberries.” The statement itself could have many meanings: is there concern for the blueberry industry? Are they not selling well? Has there been a recall? Is there not enough supply to keep up with demand? Other interesting theories discussed included concern over rising use of Oxycontin (apparently blueberries are slang for this drug), a possible “hit-piece” from a rival berry (straw being the most likely culprit), and a few theories in which blueberries referred to school children, perhaps a reference to need for greater investment in education.

You could tell that when the real story was finally revealed, it was lkely to be a let-down. As it turns out, a local businessman named Phil Shaltz purchased the ad as a public service announcement. He came up with the idea while on a family trip in Alaska, where he encountered a 21 year old tour guide:

It seems like this guy hasn’t a care in the world. He’s living in this wonderful outdoor experience in beautiful Alaska, it’s like they’re partying all night and everything is just great. So after he’s asked how things are going, his demeanor changed and he says ‘Eh, they’re OK.’”

Shaltz said that he and another tourist were kind of shocked that his demeanor was so glib given his seemingly carefree life, so he posed the question again.

The 21-year-old tour guide’s response: “I’m concerned about the blueberries.”

“What about the blueberries?” Shaltz asked.

“Not enough rain,” the tour guide said in response.

One thing that stood out to him was the fact that his issue couldn’t be resolved by anything that he could do. “He cannot impact his concern about the blueberries because he cannot impact the amount of rain in Alaska,” Shaltz said.

He said that he’s well aware of the bigger, more pressing issues such as financial disarray and crime that plague the city, but “blueberries” is more a base-level concept, he said.

If we can embed in people’s mind the word blueberry – almost like Pavlov’s Dog – so when they hear the word blueberry they immediately think about the billboard and helping people, then maybe we’ve accomplished something.

Schaltz’ efforts worked in generating buzz and receiving free publicity from local and national media. It also is an interesting attempt to re-purpose a word with an arbitrary usage. Finally, it has the full trifecta of being an attempt to make the world a better place.

“Or maybe I’m just screwing with everybody.”

And the mystery lives on…