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Greece Deserves Better Than Placemats and Paper Cups, Mister Minister

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Yes, you've read the headline correctly. Greece's brilliant marketers -- the very agency responsible for promoting Greece's image abroad -- have resorted to adding the "visit Greece" slogan on seven million placemats that will grace the tables of thousands of diners up and down the Northeast corridor of the United States.

Dumfounded describes my initial reaction. It eventually escalates to anger, disgust and culminates with the lowering of my head in embarrassment.

For starters -- I love diners. A cheeseburger deluxe is a culinary staple every time I visit New York and I often wished that the ubiquitous Greek diners of the East Coast would be more prevalent in Chicago, where I live. My father owned a 24-hour restaurant/diner in Pittsburgh and I have fond memories of learning the values of hard work there. So before you consider throwing the elitist card my way, I am a son of a diner owner and was raised -- proudly raised -- working in a diner.

Also, just to set the record straight -- I like art. I collect art -- primarily Greek artists and much of my apartment is covered with Greek art.

And lastly, I have gone on record several times, professing my love for Greece. If you've never heard me say it before, I will say it here: Greece is the most beautiful country on earth. It trumps the Caribbean any day and although the Maldives may have cleaner and more pristine beaches -- Greece's islands aren't sinking and it doesn't take three days to get there.

I mention diners, art and Greece because they are the three main components of the latest (insert sarcasm here) campaign of brilliance created by Greece's national tourist board.

A partnership with a Greek American restaurant association -- comprised of over 3000 diners from Connecticut to New Jersey and all points in between -- will feature 6 million paper placemats with beautiful images donated by 20 Greek artists.

That's right -- Greek-inspired art promoting travel to Greece... on a placemat, in a diner. Yes, those paper placemats that you drip your chicken soup on... those placemats that your children use as doodling pads while they wait until their chicken strips and fries are served... those placemats that are crinkled up at the end of the meal service and used to clean up the mess left by the guests, and tossed into the garbage.

Am I the only one feeling the outrage and frustration over this "official" plan to promote Greece in the United States?

Placemats?? Yes placemats. With even "grander" plans, according to the story in To Vima, to put the art and "VisitGreece.gr" logo on... (are you ready?) plastic cups!

I'm surprised that these esteemed artists have agreed to such a plan. I wonder if they even know that their art will be used to clean up left over food, ketchup and spilled diet soda.

An alternative plan: How about making a placemat that includes facts and tidbits about the Greek diet... the benefits of Greek olive oil and other relevant information. The people reading this info are sitting down to eat, after all, not attending an art show at a gallery.

The project is the brainchild of Greece's chief tourism marketer, the deputy minister of tourism and culture Mr. George Nikitiadis.

The various press accounts of the initiative boast that that the project cost nothing to the Greek state since it is being paid for by commercial sponsors and the restaurant association -- a savings of seven million euro worth of promotion with zero cost to the ministry.

My first thought -- 6 million euros for 7 million throwaway placemats... These people need to find a new printer.

My second thought -- give me seven million euros and I'll show you how I can promote Greece in the United States.

I would launch poster contests at art schools throughout the world and viral video spot contests -- engaging the world's most creative people to create their impressions of Greece.

I would organize Greek culinary celebrations in cities throughout the nation where restaurants can celebrate what they are known for -- their food (not art!).

I would harness the power of the social media and the internet's infinite outreach.

I would organize grassroots campaigns to harness the passion of the Greek diaspora and its pure and real love for Greece and all things Greek with specific programs that will allow us to share our love for Greece with our American friends and neighbors.

Finally, my third thought -- Instead of engaging internationally-acclaimed brand strategists like Peter Economides, who is known throughout the world for his work on campaigns like Apple's "Think Different" campaign -- we are engaging the Greek American diners association to promote tourism to Greece.

Economides dazzled the world with a rebranding initiative he introduced at a recent conference in Thessaloniki. His slide presentation alone has been seen by tens of thousands of people and praise has come from near and far.

One has to wonder if the officials at the Greek tourist organization or the Ministry of Culture and Tourism even know that one of the world's greatest brand strategists is a diaspora Greek who lives in Greece and is passionate about the nation.

Probably not. If they knew -- he'd be brander in chief of all things Greek and not off re-branding cities in Cyprus and organizing international conferences in Istanbul.

No, Mr. Nikitiadis -- placemats and plastic throwaway cups are not the proper place to promote Greece. And restaurants are not the right place, either. Despite all that she has been though lately and no matter how low she has been sunk at the hands of so many politicians who have placed self-interest and self-promotion above the nation -- Greece deserves better.