Like most really good controversies, it all started innocently enough. In this case, it began when a British travel promoter and his consultant came up with what they saw as a light-hearted attempt at promoting America as a gay-friendly tourist destination during this year's Pride London parade and festivities.
The marketing effort would consist of simple posters hung in the London Underground, each featuring a photograph of a well-known landmark in the given destination and a legend declaring the city to be "So Gay," before going on to extol its particular charms.
The five locations Andrew Roberts and his consultant Ian Johnson chose to spotlight — Atlanta, Boston, Las Vegas, Washington D.C., and New Orleans — were cosmopolitan and, each in its own way, unique.
Roberts, CEO of Amro Worldwide, a gay tour operator, and Johnson, founder and CEO of Out Now Consulting reasoned that any and all of those cities would be happy to be declared "So Gay" for a chance to share in the estimated $40 billion gay tourists spend annually, according to travel industry estimates.
Then, both men said, came an inquiry from South Carolina, asking how the state could sign on to the campaign. And before they knew it, Roberts and Johnson were ensnared in an unanticipated controversy 3,000 miles from home.
"We were well into our creative process when South Carolina expressly requested to be included in the London Underground campaign," Johnson told the Charleston City Paper recently.
"We had not originally planned for them, but they understood the campaign they were entering into and agreed to be part of it," he continued. "All partners — including South Carolina — received an Out Now partner document and all agreed to proceed after receiving this document."
As for the fact that South Carolina jumped on the campaign at the last minute, Johnson says, it's "more then deeply ironic, we think, given all that transpired."
For a few weeks this past summer, state officials in Columbia professed to having been blindsided by the campaign, effectively pinning "blame" on an employee of the state Department of Parks, Recreation, and Tourism, and ultimately reneging on the contract to pay for the ads as a result of the objections of an Upstate lawmaker.
But the story Johnson and Roberts tell today is a far different one. If anyone was blindsided by the controversy — which they characterize as a pack of mistruths and a lot of PR spin — it was the pair and the gay community.
And the lingering result is a black eye for the state's $16 billion tourism industry.
Not an Obvious Destination
Although the controversy over the ads erupted in late June, the groundwork for the public relations debacle was laid several months earlier when Out Now, which actually created the ads, was contacted by the state tourism agency's London advertising contractor.
Somewhat skeptical of how welcoming South Carolina would be toward gay tourists, Roberts asked Rand Romaine, sales manager for the state tourism agency to set up a three-day tour of the state, so he could assess the situation for himself.
"South Carolina was not an obvious destination," Roberts said of the April tour, which took him to Charleston, Myrtle Beach, and Hilton Head. "I visited the state as a guest of various regional bodies, such as the Myrtle Beach Chamber of Commerce. [S.C. Parks, Recreation, and Tourism] personnel knew full well why I was visiting South Carolina."
In Charleston, Roberts stayed at the Citadel Embassy Suites, but the stop was less than it could have been. The travel promoter did not meet with any local tourism officials, and he said that he was told they were out of town at the time. He still doesn't know who paid for his two-night stay at the hotel.
State officials confirmed Roberts' visit, although they contend that no one in charge reviewed or signed off on it.
Last summer, Marion Edmonds, a spokesman for the tourism agency, told The State newspaper in Columbia that no state money was used and that hotels donated accommodations for Roberts' visit. Edmonds also said that state tourism officials often connect local officials with potential clients.
E-mails later released via media requests through the Freedom of Information Act reveal the next critical step in the saga occurred in May, when Kirsty Dillury, the state tourism agency's contract representative in London, e-mailed images of the proposed poster to Romaine.
"As you can see, the images are very powerful and work well together," Dillury wrote in an e-mail that received extensive media coverage across the state.
Two days later, the deadline day for the campaign, Dillury followed up.
Romaine responded by telling her the ad was "good to go." No evidence has surfaced since to suggest that any of Romaine's supervisors vetted the ad before they were hung in the London Underground in late June. In fact, state officials have maintained that it is unclear Romaine himself ever looked at them.
Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Director Chad Prosser later said the first he'd heard of the ads was over the July 4 weekend.
In another widely disseminated e-mail sent that same weekend Edmonds said, "I'm praying this little story doesn't jump the pond, especially as the later summer slow news cycle sets in."
He added, "Let's hope [this] doesn't get picked up by some S.C. tourist and brought back. It would be a classic case of a picture doing the damage of a thousand words."
Within days, however, the story was broken by the Palmetto Scoop, a pro-Republican blog, and quickly picked up by the mainstream media.
David Thomas, a Republican state senator from Greenville, called for an audit of the tourism agency after learning of the ad campaign, while Joel Sawyer, spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford, said using tax money to support a social or political agenda was inappropriate.
"Our state tourism dollars should be talking about the beaches and attractions of South Carolina," Sawyer said.
The day Palmetto Scoop broke the story, Romaine e-mailed agency officials and the agency's British contractor, recommending that the ads be pulled. "I made a serious error in judgment regarding the political sensitivities surrounding the marketing opportunities with Amro Vacations and the London campaign," he wrote. But by then, the genie was out of the bottle. Prosser ultimately decided trying to pull the ads would be useless, reasoning that the campaign would be nearly over before anything could be done about it.
The agency did announce, however, that it would not pay the $4,942 fee to take part in the campaign.
Romaine, who had worked for the tourism agency for more than a decade, promptly resigned July 11, a move state officials described as purely voluntary.
Ultimately Amro Worldwide was paid out of the London contractor's funds.
Roberts is equally upset at how the whole fiasco made his company and its consultant appear.
According to Roberts, Amro declined to discuss the So Gay campaign controversy at first. He recalled, "This is what we did — until we started to read things that suggested Amro Worldwide and Out Now had not secured correct approval for this advertising."
Nothing could be further from the truth, Roberts said.
Johnson said the debacle over the advertising campaign literally shocked him to his core, because it appeared the state cared more about managing the political PR damage than maximizing tourism revenues. "In the 21st century and in a country as supposedly 'modern' as America, politicians and conservatives still think that targeting a group of travelers as a niche market — in this case gays and lesbians — was anything other than a smart business move," he said.
For his part, Roberts seemed even more stunned by the firestorm. "We never contended that the whole state is a gay state or anything of that nature," he said. "What the Amro Worldwide 'So Gay' by Out Now did was to use a phrase usually intended negatively as a positive message from a gay travel company targeting a gay travel market audience.
"That is the point of good advertising, to attract the interest of the target market," Roberts continued, "and these ads did an excellent job at doing precisely that."
Johnson maintains the campaign was well received by the other destinations that participated in the campaign, and Roberts said it definitely had the effect of increasing traffic on his website.
But when it came to South Carolina, bookings subsequent to the campaign were minimal.
"A factor I can only ascribe to the hysterical reaction of South Carolina's politicians and the tourism department," he said.
"Let's be clear," Johnson said. "This controversy was a case of tourism agency employees clearly protecting their positions in the face of political pressure from the governor's office and the state's Republican senators. This was nothing more than a little gay-bashing on the eve of the U.S. elections.
"That may be politics, but it certainly doesn't make it right," he said.
A Call to Action
In the aftermath of the controversy, state tourism officials said the agency will require more review of future overseas advertising, as it does with domestic advertising.
In the meantime, gay and lesbian activists across the state have embraced the controversy as a call to action.
Roberts said his company has received hundreds of requests for the "So Gay" poster since the controversy erupted. He says, "People can freely download them from our website at www.amroworldwide.info, and there are many local bars in South Carolina where the posters now occupy pride of place."
S.C. Pride Director Ryan Wilson revamped the group's website and staged a fund-raising effort to collect the money for the ads.
The effort runs under the banner "South Carolina will be so gay," with the group maintaining that based on the controversy, the state still falls a little short in that regard. In appreciation, Roberts said Amro will donate all proceeds raised back to the organizers of S.C. Pride to kick-start preparations for its 2009 Pride gathering in Columbia.
"The local gay and lesbian community of South Carolina has been the true star of this saga," Johnson said. "To see the way the local community rallied around the cause to try to pay back the state's debt was truly inspirational. From a marketing standpoint, we could not have been more delighted to see that they adapted Out Now's 'So Gay' slogan from Amro Worldwide and applied it to their 2008 Pride celebrations in September."
That said, Johnson hedged when asked whether he'd be willing to visit South Carolina in the future.
"I really want to say yes, but I am afraid that witnessing firsthand the ugly reactions of many people, it has made me really reconsider whether I would go there," he said. "I am not personally concerned for my safety, I just think I would rather take my hard-earned pink dollars to somewhere that makes more of an effort to welcome me. Frankly, I think this controversy has set back the world's impression of South Carolina by decades."