And you’re gonna love it: How Ontario became ‘Yours to Discover’

In the late ’70s, Ontario tourism was in a slump. But one landmark campaign put the province’s attractions on the map — and a new slogan on its licence plates
By Jamie Bradburn - Published on April 5, 2019
Ontario licence plate
In 1982, "Yours to Discover" made its debut on Ontario licence plates. (Archives of Ontario)

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“Welcome to the world around you, blue skies and breath-taking Northern vistas, rolling hills, towering forests, 400,000 inland lakes, glorious gorges, thundering falls, and miles and miles of untamed wilds. Welcome to our gentler nature, fields, and pastures, market gardens, vineyards, orchards, winding by-ways and all our smaller, quiet places. Welcome to the celebrations, plays, and playgrounds, Pow Wows, parades, Pioneer Days, pageants and spectacular ceremonials, horse-shows, rodeos, strawberry socials, fairs and festivals, and city lights — a feast of cultures, yours to enjoy, Ontario — yours to discover.”

So read an advertisement published in Ontario newspapers on May 1, 1980.

During the late 1970s, Ontario tourism was in a slump. Outdated facilities and poor marketing had created an image of a province that, as one resident told government researchers in 1978, was like a “no-name product.” After the successful launch of the “I Love New York” campaign in 1979 showed how a modern and exciting promotional blitz could revitalize a tourism industry, Ontario turned to advertising firm Camp Associates for help. The "Yours to Discover" campaign it created proved popular — and gave rise to a new provincial slogan, which, despite numerous attempts, has never been erased from the public consciousness.

“We needed to deal with the perception that taking a vacation in Ontario had no status attached,” Camp Associates creative director John McIntyre told Business Quarterly magazine in 1983. “So one of the buzz words when we were developing the plan was ‘valorization’— creating a campaign that would give Ontarians a sense of value from vacationing in their own province. We also determined that we didn’t need to use gimmicks or incentives. We just needed to provide information about what was there.”

When the $9.5 million campaign launched in May 1980, it focused on Ontarians instead of on the traditional targets: Americans and tourists from other provinces. A series of newspaper ads included monthly event calendars and tour ideas, and highlighted local attractions. A television spot featured a catchy jingle sung by Taborah Johnson and clips showing the many activities the province had to offer. A 40-page guide included as a newspaper insert divided the province into 12 tourist regions and stressed the joys of discovering unfamiliar places. 

The campaign worked. That year, 88 per cent of Ontarians spent their vacation in the province, accounting for $5.2 billion, or 70 per cent, of all tourist spending. As a result, the government increased the campaign’s budget to $11.6 million for 1981, and efforts were made to draw more Americans. Five million copies of a 48-page supplement were distributed that May in newspapers south of the border, primarily in Michigan, New Jersey, New York, and Pennsylvania. Visits by American citizens — who almost certainly also found the weak Canadian dollar and low gas prices appealing — increased 28.5 per cent over the first five months of 1981.

That year also saw more retail partnerships: the Dominion chain of supermarkets linked its summertime “Fun Trek” coupon book for Ontario attractions to the campaign. Eaton’s opened tourist-information kiosks in six stores in Hamilton, Metropolitan Toronto, Ottawa, and St. Catharines. Blacks themed at least one flyer around how its photographic products could help customers discover Ontario.

Since 1973, Ontario licence plates had included the phrase “Keep It Beautiful.” But Bill Davis’s Progressive Conservative government decided that the time had come for a change, and, in 1982, “Yours to Discover” made its debut. Nearly 90 per cent of Ontarians polled by the government said that they were familiar with it — putting their elected representatives to shame: a Globe and Mail report found that only 60 per cent of Liberals MPPs, 50 per cent of PC MPPs, and 40 per cent of NDP MPPs recognized it. “NDP members said that the Liberals fared better on the test,” the paper reported, “because they watch more television than other MPPs.”

Ontario cities attempted to replicate the campaign’s success. In 1984, Metropolitan Toronto hired Camp Associates to shape its tourism campaign, which produced the slogan “Toronto, Discover the Feeling.” Suburban politicians hated it: they thought it placed too much emphasis on the core city and came off as a poor imitation of “Yours to Discover” and “I Love New York.” “It’s not going to get the mileage that you want,” North York mayor Mel Lastman told the Globe and Mail. “This is not going to keep [TV viewers] from going to the bathroom.”

In January 1984, the “Yours to Discover” campaign received international recognition, winning awards for best tourism advertising and best in all categories at the United States Television and Radio Commercials Festival. But, given the close ties between Camp Associates and the Progressive Conservative Party (the company’s president, Norm Atkins, was one of Davis’s biggest boosters), it’s perhaps not surprising that the contract wasn’t renewed in 1985, after the Liberals took power. The company quickly secured a contract to handle a national tourism campaign.

Tourism slogans that followed, such as “Ontario Incredible,” failed to imprint themselves on the public’s imagination.

Premier Doug Ford recently announced that he wants to replace “Yours to Discover” on licence plates with “Open for Business.” Government Services Minister Bill Walker explained the move by stating that the Tories want to “turn the page” on the “dire economic situation” they believe they inherited from the previous administration and “ensure that Ontario says to the world, ‘We are back on stage.’” It remains to be seen whether “Open for Business” will enjoy quite the same staying power — and popular support — as its predecessor.

Sources: the Summer 1983 edition of Business Quarterly; the May 1, 1980, May 17, 1980, July 1, 1981, November 4, 1982, June 9, 1984, and August 25, 1984, editions of the Globe and Mail; and the May 17, 1981, June 25, 1981, August 6, 1981, and September 25, 1985, editions of the Toronto Star.

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