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E-mails Reveal "So Gay" Ad Surprised S.C. Tourism Leaders

E-mails Reveal "So Gay" Ad Surprised S.C. Tourism Leaders

When an ad campaign appeared in the London Underground promoting South Carolina as a "So Gay" destination for gay and lesbian tourists, the spokesman for the state's tourism agency shared his unease with a colleague.

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When an ad campaign appeared in the London Underground promoting South Carolina as a "So Gay" destination for gay and lesbian tourists, the spokesman for the state's tourism agency shared his unease with a colleague.

"I'm praying this little story doesn't jump the pond, especially as the later summer slow news cycle sets in," Marion Edmonds wrote in a July 3 e-mail. "Let's hope that doesn't get picked up by some SC tourist and brought back. It would be a classic case of a picture doing the damage of a thousand words."

Edmonds's prayer was not answered. The story broke in early July in the blogosphere and then moved into mainstream news reports.

A pile of e-mail printouts at the South Carolina Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Department illustrates the agency's confused response to the ads -- which apparently were approved by a lone employee who may not have even looked at them -- and the media storm that followed.

Freedom of Information requests yielded a four-inch stack of e-mails and documents dating to 2004.

The communications suggest an agency employee, who since has resigned, decided to spend $4,942.50 from a tourism promotion fund he controlled on the campaign designed to draw South Carolina trip bookings during London Pride, a gay event.

State officials quickly reneged on the decision to spend money on the ads. Tourism industry experts said by washing its hands of the ad campaign, the state is losing out on lucrative business.

John Tanzella, executive director of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association, last month called it "mind-boggling" that South Carolina wouldn't invest $5,000 to draw tourism from a lucrative niche market.

The hundreds of e-mails show the agency's leadership figuring out how and why the ads were running in the first place and hoping the story would blow over.

The same day that spokesman Edmonds sent his note to Amy Duffy, the agency's chief of staff, one of Duffy's longtime friends forwarded an e-mail from an employee who was vacationing in London.

It included pictures from a gay tour promoter's website talking up South Carolina's Civil War roots and gay beaches. "Imagine my surprise in seeing this poster in a London Underground station," the employee wrote. "Who knew?"

A document from Amro Worldwide, the tour promoter, says the posters along escalators were designed to change attitudes and "'reclaim' the term 'so gay' as a term that is rendered strongly positive for lesbian and gay people. It also allows gay and lesbian people to feel that the term is being neutered as a negative putdown, by portraying 'so gay' as they experience it -- to be a very good thing indeed; for gay consumers and for each destination highlighted."

Atlanta, Boston, and New Orleans were among the six locations featured on the "So Gay" posters.

The Amro Worldwide document, along with images of the proposed poster, were sent to Rand Romaine, the Parks, Recreation, and Tourism Department's sales manager, by Kirsty Dillury, the agency's contract representative in the United Kingdom, for approval two days before a deadline to include them in the display.

"As you can see the images are very powerful and work well together," Dillury writes on May 19. She follows up the next day, pressing Romaine for approval.

"It's good to go," Romaine replies.

It was the only communication from the agency approving the ad. None of the e-mail shows Romaine vetted the ad with agency managers before they first appeared June 27.

Chad Prosser, the state agency director, said he learned about the ads July 3 with the note forwarded from Duffy's friend.

Edmonds, the department spokesman, had learned about them on June 30 with news releases.

Taxpayers soon found out about them too.

"This needs to be stopped immediately!" wrote Tom Irby, a Belton retiree, in an e-mail to Republican governor Mark Sanford, Prosser's boss, after the news broke in South Carolina. "The persons responsible for this travesty should be fired!"

Romaine, who had worked at PRT since 1996, resigned July 11. Prosser says it was voluntary. Romaine did not respond to calls from the AP.

Romaine told Duffy in an e-mail he didn't "specifically recall seeing the actual ad creative." Duffy and Edmonds said the agency's computer techs weren't able to show that Romaine had ever opened the file Dillury had sent with the details.

"I saw a sales opportunity and reacted," Romaine wrote.

The agency's reaction appeared confused. For instance, on July 3, Romaine told Dillury he'd been ordered to get the ads taken down, but reversed himself 20 minutes later at Prosser's direction.

"We were going through the process and beginning to look at taking action," and didn't want to embarrass the state, Prosser said. At the time, "we didn't think it was something that we needed to make a big deal out of."

Meanwhile, computer technicians had to open the agency's Internet filter so Edmonds could see how the story played out on gay websites.

Ultimately, tour operator was paid -- but out of Dillury's company's funds.

Prosser brushes aside questions about the publicity that South Carolina attracted.

"South Carolina is a tremendous tourism product. It appeals to a broad group of people," he said. "We do welcome everyone. Our job is just to keep getting that message out beyond the static that's being caused by certain groups." (Jim Davenport AP)

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E-mails Reveal "So Gay" Ad Surprised S.C. Tourism Leaders

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