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South Carolina is so gay - re-visited

Distancing itself from gay travel campaign will cost South Carolina tourism dollars

Jul 17, 2008

COLUMBIA, S.C. - The flap over an ad promoting South Carolina as "So Gay" will cost the state tourism dollars, according to an industry expert.

Gay and lesbian travelers will likely be turned off by the political posturing surrounding the ads, which were pulled by the state tourism agency and led one employee to resign.

"We experience discrimination every day, so we certainly don’t want to when we travel," said Wesley Combs of the Washington-based communication firm Witeck-Combs, which specializes in gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender travel.

Combs noted that national media attention about the ad, including jokes on Conan O’Brien’s late-night TV show, sends a sour message to gays and lesbians who spend an estimated $712 million a year in travel.

"We read," he said. And S.C. government leaders "are sending a signal that gay people are not welcome in South Carolina."

Gov. Mark Sanford and Greenville Sen. David Thomas on Wednesday reiterated that tax money should not be used to target gay travel.

"We welcome anyone to visit our state," Sanford spokesman Joel Sawyer said, "but we agree with Sen. Thomas about using tax money to promote any group with a particular social or political agenda."

Thomas softened his tone toward gay travel, saying he would "love" for gays and lesbians to visit and spend money in the state’s $16 billion-a-year tourism economy. He just doesn’t want ads like the one in question that promotes the state’s "gay beaches."

"If the ad had said, ’You will love the Southern Baptist beaches,’ I would also be offended," he said. "If a homosexual is attracted here, that’s great. But I have a problem with tax money being spent on ads with a social viewpoint, particularly with sexual orientation."

Gay and lesbian leaders called those comments hypocritical.

"I’m sure (Thomas) is softening his tone to appear less bigoted," said Ray Drew of the South Carolina Equality Coalition. "Tourism is a huge industry in this state and targeted marketing is not only appropriate, but smart. He is hiding behind the words ’social viewpoint.’"

But Drew also called the "So Gay" ad childish and counterproductive. For example, he said the ad touts the state’s gay beaches, when there are none he knows of.

"If I were going to the gay community, that’s not the tone that I would use," he said. "’So gay’ is a slur - not as bad as some - but it’s clearly done by a company that is not familiar with South Carolina. It’s inaccurate."

A state tourism agency spokesman said the ads were created by the Australian Out Now and ran in London to coincide with that city’s gay pride festival this month.

The ads cost $4,942, but the state said it will not pay for them because they were not approved properly, said Marion Edmonds, a spokesman for the S.C. Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism. An unidentified PRT employee resigned over the ad.

Drew said a smart, tasteful campaign would be appropriate.

"Gay money is just as green as straight money," he said.

Linda Reitman of Baltimore, Md., who travels to Charleston and Columbia often with her partner, Mary, said their South Carolina experiences have always been good. The 35-year-old physical therapist said they will return.

"Everyone we were with were super-friendly and not conservative Southern at all," she said. "It is just a very fun, inviting and active place. The Southern accents make me feel warm anyway."

Meanwhile, Thomas has backed off his call for an audit of PRT. He said he would settle for a list of advertising outlets used, their cost and some idea of content.

"We simply need their elaboration of what is being done with their advertising money," he said. "I expect it to be vanilla. I don’t expect any surprises."

Distancing itself from gay travel campaign will cost South Carolina tourism dollars

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