The Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce director’s push afoot (so to speak) to replace the venerable slogan on our motor vehicle registration tags (i.e. license plates) may be one of the few times the governor has given them the red light. In fairness, the point they’re having a cow about might actually be whether “America’s Dairyland” still represents truth in advertising given that in 1994 Wisconsin relinquished its first place in overall dairy production among the states to California. The slogan may be not so much “politically incorrect” as perhaps just plain ol’ incorrect. Sadly, you can certainly notice how the cows, dairy farms and milk trucks have receded on the landscape and byways of southwestern Wisconsin. Maybe “Keep Calm & Dairy On” about sums it up. Of course a state’s economy and culture is varied and complex, with differing groups vying over Whichconsin is which. But, successful symbols work best at capturing and illuminating the universal when they encapsulate and highlight a specific particular. Generic branding is a contradiction.
Hey, hold the dairy decline, the state is now No. 1 in cheese production! In the interest of accurate advertisement, perhaps the Manufacturers and Commerce lobby should consider touting “The Cheesy State” or “Just Say Cheez” or “The Squeaky Cheese Gets the Grease” on our plates (and in our hearts). If indeed it is welcoming inclusivity they’re driving at, how about “Like Butter” (or is that Buttah), or instead modifying the real state motto by “Moo-ving Forward.” Would that the Driftless Area could weigh in with “Karst on a Cracker” versus “Gluten-free or Die.” Given the whey of the world, if politics raises its wedgyhead and inserts its climate agenda, can we look forward to “The Badgered State” on “Divided Roads Ahead” in the “Land of Milk & Money,” if not “Don’t Worry Brie Happy?” Grazing past just being open for business, are they clutching at “Greetings from Youbetchastan?”
I could pull more alt lines out of the dairy air, folks, however boosters miss the gravy boat and chance to separate the Gouda from the bad by not addressing the more pressing, churning, overdue need to revamp the plates’ moldy design, whichever the tag line. The fully aged design of the current base plate (introduced in 1986 and hastily modified in 2000 after Gov. Thompson nixed a readied redesign), in a word, is tired. And, I and many others are tired of it.
The bloom is definitely off the Roquefort and you’d think that the recent introduction of the new numbering system after exhausting all the old serials would have been an obvious opportunity to renew, retire and put the present plate design itself out to pasture with the dairy departed. After all, these are arguably the most pervasive items representing and promoting our state, in addition to their more mundane function, and there are 49 others to stand out from.
For the two or three people whose attention I still have, let me briefly segue to an ever more elevated example of a civic symbol failure to inspire, our state flag. The Wisconsin state flag is one of the generic slap the state seal on a most often blue background and call it only good enough for government work school of design; rendering it practically indistinguishable from half the other states, thus defeating its point especially when performing its primary function of flying up on a flagpole. Talk about mixed media, seals were designed and meant for a very different purpose. The flag violates the standards of vexillology, good flag design. Yes, Virginia (and Wisconsin), there are bad flags, design-wise that is.
Most private citizens I ask don’t even know what our flag looks like, let alone consider flying one themselves. The legislature recognized the problem in 1981, if not the true solution of a superior design out of whole cheesecloth, adding “Wisconsin” in big letters to the flag just so we could tell for sure (although it reads backwards when the wind shifts). Without milking the idea in this abbreviated format (but just ask me in person and I’ll elaborate an earful), I’d find it a source of needed hope if the state, while retaining the seal for its intended uses, could find a way through an appropriate process to a not merely unique but distinctive, galvanizing, I daresay even beautiful new flag, worthy of wide regard and use. Maybe the 175th anniversary in 2023 of statehood could serve as a motivating deadline to indeed make our milquetoast state symbols great again.