The advertisement was meant to showcase North Dakota's nightlife: Two young men and three women flirt through the window of a downtown Fargo motel bar. Printed next to them is the message: "Drinks, dinner, decisions. Arrive a guest. Leave a legend."
It was meant to be "a little flirty, a little fun," said Pat Finken, president of Odney Advertising, the agency that created the ad.
Instead, some found it a tawdry come-on, prompting the state's tourism division to yank it from its Facebook page late Thursday after it drew dozens of complaints and comments.
One commenter called the ad "sickening," while another speculated about what the people in the photo needed to do to "leave a legend."
Finken and Sara Otte Coleman, director of North Dakota's tourism division, said Friday they were surprised by the reaction.
"It wasn't my favorite ad. I thought, 'Oh, this is a little cheesy.' I certainly didn't think it was over the line, or seductive, or in any way in poor taste," Coleman said. "It really just takes one or two (negative comments), and then people jump on the bandwagon."
The ad was among a group of 10 print ads that North Dakota's tourism agency posted Monday on Facebook to solicit opinions about them. Others show couples shopping and hiking, a pair of men playing golf and a young woman and her daughter leaving a historic wooden fort.
The criticism of the Fargo ad began Thursday, Coleman said. It was removed from the site, and stripped Friday from its place on page 12 of a digital version of the state tourism division's visitors' guide for 2012.
Coleman said the ad was aimed at Canadian travelers, and intended for placement in Canadian magazines. Manitoba is one of North Dakota's primary tourist markets; many residents travel south to Grand Forks and Fargo for weekends, she said.
Finken said the photo was taken last summer at the downtown Hotel Donaldson, which features a lounge with large glass windows and a view of people passing on the sidewalk.
The photo shows two young men at a bar table, looking through the window at a group of three smiling young women.
Katherine Paynter, who is standing in the middle of the three women in the ad, said the five young people know each other well. One of the men in the ad is her boyfriend, Gavin Rehder, 27, of Fargo, who is shown seated at a bar table holding a half-empty glass of beer.
"When they posted it on Facebook for the public to view I thought nothing of it, nothing at all," Paynter said. "They're trying to get a certain age group to look into the nightlife in North Dakota .... It wasn't supposed to be some sleazy, racy photo."
Paynter, 24, a Fargo resident, is a model and actress who teaches public speaking at North Dakota State University. She said she was disgusted by personal insults directed at the models, some of which described the women as overweight and ugly and the men as gay.
"We were quite excited for this ad to come out, so for it to blow up like this is almost embarrassing," she said.
Kristin Lamoureux, a professor in George Washington University's Department of Tourism and Hospitality Management, said strong reactions to tourism advertising are not uncommon.
"That's the goal of marketing, is to create some sort of buzz," she said. "If you think about the campaigns that you remember, there's controversy there. There's something edgy."
Some tourism campaigns deliberately court controversy, Lamoureux said. When the city of Las Vegas attempted to market itself as a family-friendly destination, it "backfired on them terribly," she said.
"The result is the campaign that you kind of see now, which is, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas," she said. "If you look at those commercials, a lot of them push the envelope a lot."
Diane Shober, Wyoming's tourism director, said the state does not normally emphasize nightlife in its own campaigns. Wyoming's main attraction to tourists is its parks and outdoors, Shober said Friday.
"It all depends on what your product is. We can't sell anything with shopping or nightlife because we just don't have it available," Shober said. "What draws people here for a vacation is to see Yellowstone National Park."
Ingrid Schneider, a University of Minnesota professor and director of the school's tourism center, said the ad "is definitely not North Dakota's current image, and this is probably what they're trying to change."
"I personally would not think of this as a tourism ad. I think this could be anywhere," Schneider said. "I'm not sure this conveys nightlife. I think there are many other ways to convey nightlife."
Coleman said the 10 North Dakota print ads and six television ads cost less than $200,000 to produce. They will be part of an ad campaign that will cost about $1.8 million.
She said the Fargo photo will remain in the printed version of the 2012 visitors' guide.
"You look at that in the visitors' guide and it's mingled with all of those other activities," Coleman said. "It's blended with so many other things that I think that definitely, the message comes through fine."