S. Carolina Huffs Over UK 'Gay' Ads

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Posters promoting South Carolina and other US states as "so gay" on the London Underground.

Officials in South Carolina have replaced southern hospitality with southern hostility following an advertising campaign that featured posters declaring, "South Carolina is so gay."

The campaign, launched by marketing agency Out Now Consulting, was intended to promote Amro Worldwide, a London-based gay tour operator, and to tout tourism to several gay-friendly U.S. destinations. In the week leading up to the British capital's gay pride parade on July 5, the agency placed 60 posters along escalators in London's Leicester Square and Covent Garden tube stations, which serve Soho, the city's gay hub. The South Carolina poster features a generic image of a plantation, and hyped the state's antebellum architecture, golf courses and gay beaches.

South Carolina State Senator David Thomas, a Republican, publicly condemned the campaign after reading about it on The Palmetto Scoop, a South Carolina political blog. He also called for an audit of the tourism department's advertising budget, which in 2008 will run to approximately $10 million.

"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. Following the uproar, the state's tourism department refused to pay the $5,000 advertising fee and has asked that the posters be removed, and a state employee has resigned. But as of Wednesday evening, the posters were still hanging in Leicester Square tube station.

In an interview with TIME, the Senator explained that the advertisement is offensive to taxpayers who are not gay, and that it mischaracterizes the travel opportunities for gay men and women visiting his state. "They'll get off the plane and say, 'Where are the gay beaches?' and no one will know what they are talking about."

But South Carolina may in fact be "gayer" than many suspect. Andrew Roberts, CEO of Amro Worldwide, visited South Carolina after the state's tourism board expressed interest in the campaign, and says he toured several gay venues, including largely gay sections of mainstream beaches, in Charleston, Hilton Head Island and Myrtle Beach. "A few people in South Carolina need to wake up to what's going on in their state," he says. "There are more gay bars along that coastal strip than there are in Vegas."

The London posters also advertised Atlanta, Boston, Las Vegas, New Orleans and Washington, D.C. Thus far, there has been no outcry from officials in those cities. That may reflect their knowledge that gay tourists spend some $65 billion in the U.S. annually. "It's a tremendous market to tap into," says Matthew DeGuire of Travel Unlimited, a retail travel agency in Columbia, South Carolina. "Most gay households are two-income families with no kids, and they have a lot more disposable income than a typical household." Indeed, a recent marketing survey found that 97% of American gay men and women took vacation in the past year, compared to just 64% of the general population.

Gay rights activists view the furor as yet another example of homophobia. "It shows bigotry," says Ryan Wilson, an activist with South Carolina's Pride Movement, a gay rights organization. "I don't want to be a pawn in someone's reelection campaign." In response to actions by the state tourism board, Wilson's group has decided to raise the $5,000 necessary to pay the advertising fee, and has adopted the slogan "South Carolina WILL BE 'So Gay.'"

Senator Thomas dismisses the notion that homophobia motivated his statements, and says that he merely wants the state to concentrate on inclusive advertising that doesn't single out any specific group. And, in a state where hospitality and business co-exist, he has a message for all potential visitors, gay and straight alike: "You come spend money. We'd love to have you."