A state employee has resigned and officials have disavowed an international advertising campaign that led to calls for an investigation of tourism posters proclaiming “South Carolina is so gay.”
The campaign, which plastered the London subway with posters advertising the charms of South Carolina and five major U.S. cities to gay European tourists, landed with a resounding thud in South Carolina, where the issue of gay rights has long been a political flashpoint.
The advertisements were timed for London’s Gay Pride Week, which ended Saturday. The posters touted the attractions of the state to gay tourists, including its “gay beaches” and its Civil War-era plantations.
Similar ads were posted for Atlanta, Boston, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Washington, D.C., none of which reported any negative backlash. But in South Carolina, reaction to the posters — dubbed “the gayest ever mainstream media advertising campaign in London” by Out Now, the Australian advertising firm that designed the promotion — was swift.
After The Palmetto Scoop, a South Carolina political blog, uncovered the promotion last week, Republican state Sen. David Thomas of Greenville protested the campaign and called for an audit of the advertising budget overseen by the state Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism.
“South Carolinians will be irate when they learn their hard earned tax dollars are being spent to advertise our state as ‘so gay,’” Thomas said in a statement.
The tourism department quickly said it was canceling payment of its $5,000 fee for the posters, which it said were approved by a low-level state worker who did not run the idea by senior officials. The employee, who was not identified, resigned last week, the agency said.
A spokesman for Gov. Mark Sanford, who has been mentioned as a possible running mate for the Republican presidential nominee, Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said the governor agreed that the posters were “inappropriate.”
The was no immediate reaction from Out Now.
‘Just great to be so gay’
The campaign was designed to “send a clear message to everyone who sees this campaign that it is long past time that ‘so gay’ should be used as a negative phrase of disapproval,” said Andrew Roberts, chief executive of Amro Worldwide, the travel agency that commissioned the ads.
“From where we sit, and for all our many customers, being described as ‘so gay’ is not a negative thing at all. We think it is just great to be so gay,” said Roberts, who called the campaign a success, having reached more than 2 million people in London.
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State tourism officials insisted that they had known nothing about the campaign. But when the promotion was first announced last month, the tourism board said in a statement that “it sends a powerful positive message.”
“For our gay visitors, it is actually quite wonderful for them to discover just how much South Carolina has to offer — from stunning plantation homes to miles of wide sandy beaches,” the statement said.
The agency reversed course last week after many South Carolinians disagreed.
Oran Smith, president of the Palmetto Family Council, a conservative activist group in Columbia, the state capital, said that at first he thought the ads were an Internet hoax.
“I think with today’s economy, we have to be really smart with our tourism dollars, and South Carolina’s market, very clearly, is the family-friendly market,” Smith said. “So if we want to spend our dollars in a way that’s wise, we need to go after our market, and our market is families.”
Said Ventphis Stafford of Charleston: “We’re so gay? Nah. Wrong state. Go to California.”
Activist: Right message, wrong place
Gay tourism is a $64.5 billion market in the United States, the International Gay and Lesbian Travel Association estimates, and more than 75 cities around the world have gay-themed campaigns that create no controversy. But the campaign drew special attention in South Carolina because it emerged only weeks after widespread debate over gay rights in the schools.
Eddie Walker, principal of Irmo High School, in suburban Columbia, announced that he was quitting rather than approve the creation of a Gay-Straight Alliance at the school, one of the state’s largest.
“Our sex education curriculum is abstinence based,” Walker wrote in a letter to the school. “I feel the formation of a Gay/Straight Alliance Club at Irmo High School implies that students joining the club will have chosen to or will choose to engage in sexual activity with members of the same sex, opposite sex, or members of both sexes.”
Such attitudes remain prevalent in the state, said Warren Redman-Gress, executive director of the South Carolina Alliance for Full Acceptance, a gay and lesbian advocacy group. He praised the motives behind the campaign but criticized it as poorly thought out.
“I wish the folks at the tourism board had done a little more of their homework,” Redman-Gress said. “I get calls regularly, people want to know before I come and spend my hard-earned money, my souvenir dollars in South Carolina, is it a place where it is OK for me to be gay?
“The answer is yes and no,” he said. “You live on the edge with the simple fact that you can come to South Carolina, spend your money getting here, and someone can come in and say, ‘I’m sorry; you can’t stay here because you’re gay.’”
NBC affiliates WCBD of Charleston, S.C.; WIS of Columbia, S.C.; WSAV of Savannah, Ga.; and WYFF of Greenville, S.C., contributed to this report.