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Going Places in Michigan

In 1956 Leonard adopted a new strategy that played to its strength as a regional, Michigan-based company by encouraging people to travel in Michigan. Labeled “going places in Michigan,” the keystone of the campaign was a very successful television show, Michigan Outdoors, which was televised across the state.  Michigan Outdoors, its host, Mort Neff, and of course the show’s new principal sponsor, Leonard Gas, attracted at its peak over 2.5 million viewers weekly and became synonymous with outdoor activities for a generation of Michiganians.

Leonard’s decision to sponsor a tourism campaign put it at the forefront of advertising. In 1955 several national firms had begun to experiment with promoting travel. For example, Sinclair Oil had produced ten “public service” announcements promoting America’s national parks, but did not directly link the ads to gasoline marketing. Esso Standard Oil Company (today’s Exxon-Mobil) promoted tourism in areas where it then sold gasoline, largely along the east coast in the south. Prior to this gasoline companies had occasionally published “guides” to hunting and fishing in a particular area. But the idea of linking travel and gasoline sales was still novel in 1956 when Leonard began to advertise on Michigan Outdoors

Michigan Outdoors had originated in 1951. The show’s host, Mort Neff, was educated as a journalist, and saw himself as a reporter covering a wide range of outdoor activities. Neff knew how to put together an entertaining program that would appeal to a wide segment of the population. A radio program he began in 1940 under the sponsorship of the state Department of Conservation and which aired on 32 radio stations, led, somewhat accidentally, to his becoming in 1951 the “temporary” host of a 15 minute television show broadcast in Detroit and devoted to outdoor activities. The show soon expanded both in time, to 30 minutes, and in scope. Neff, who soon owned the program outright, bought air time from television stations across the state and simulcast the program in various markets.  For many people, tuning in to Mort Neff and Michigan Outdoors on Thursday night at 7:00 p.m. was an activity second only to attending church on Sunday; and at least a few Michiganians ranked watching Neff as preferable to listening to the sermon prepared by their pastor.

Leonard Refineries both sponsored the program and built a large number of printed promotions around it. Almost all of the promotions were distributed free of charge, at “your local Leonard station.” The most prominent item was a monthly publication, Going Places in Michigan, which was first distributed at Leonard gas stations in May 1956. Each issue promoted a wide range of tourist activities. Typically the publication included four “dominant’ stories about major events, a calendar of events briefly listing other activities, a map of choice fishing spots selected by Mort Neff, and other “tips.”

Behind the scenes Leonard’s advertising agency divided the state into 15 “zones” and made an effort to regularly promote attractions in each zone. Stories and information found in Going Places in Michigan reported on a wide variety of activities. As one might expect, hunting and fishing often were given extensive reviews, but Neff and Leonard saw their audience as more than sportsmen.  Scenic drives and lookout points, points of interest for photography fans, historical sites, the location of showboats and summer theater, winter activities, and a wide range of special events or attractions, from rodeos, ox roasts, golf tournaments, county fairs, religious shrines, lighthouses and anything else the public might find interesting, were all featured both on the television and on the pages of Going Places in Michigan.

Linked to the travel campaign, Leonard supported activities to clean roadsides.  In 1956 Leonard installed litter barrels at all its service stations were motorists could empty their trash, and that year distributed over 100,000 litterbags to drivers, in which to hold the trash until their next stop at a Leonard station. Free maps, noting the locations of both interesting sites identified by Mort Neff and Leonard gas stations, were also liberally distributed.

Soon enough, Leonard not only identified places to go in Michigan, but organizing outdoorsmen and becoming a sponsor of events. In the fall of 1958 Leonard organized the “Leonard Outdoors Club of Michigan,” encouraging the state’s residents to focus even more closely on Leonard endorsed recreational activity. Also in 1958 the company sponsored Michigan Outdoors first annual ski festival, at Caberfae Lodge, sixteen miles west of Cadillac.  The company was involved as a sponsor in various festivals and activities, such as an annual “carp carnival” in Monroe County, an event in which over 2,000 archers using bows and arrows tested their skill against carp. “Tip-Up -Town,” an annual ice fishing festival at Houghton Lake was also a favorite of both Mort Neff and Leonard gas. However the company’s largest single event-related commitment became support for recreational boating.