The Southwest Florida tourist sanctuary achieved a pinnacle moment in advertising circles last week when its campaign to show its oil-free beaches generated enough noise to warrant a story extolling its quirky humor in the New York Times.
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It should serve as creative inspiration to other groups angling for a piece of the next $50 million in advertising dollars Gov. Charlie Crist is attempting to secure from the British oil company.
In the nine Lee County spots that aired on national network and cable television on consecutive days beginning June 21, an overeager tourist from Chicago – known as "Dan" – scoops up a handful of ocean water and tastes it, declaring, "it's salty, no oil" and models his lanky, pasty complexion in a red Speedo next to a real bodybuilder, among other antics.
As the Times put it, the creator of the ads initially envisioned a character that was "more Steve Irwin than Steve Carell," but "Dan" nailed a lovably irreverent persona and elicited more smiles than cringes.
Most of the other ads to come from the $25 million BP already gave the state have teetered between the downright boring and predictable to barely head-turning.
A recent full-page ad in the Times, for example, showed cliché images of Florida sand and golf with the title, "Florida is open for business." No mention of the spill, though the ad paid for by the Florida Restaurant and Lodging Association and state-funded Visit Florida directed readers to VisitFlorida.com for links to live beachcams.
In today's world of media overload, the state must get bolder and louder if it hopes to overcome widespread images of tourists' feet dirtied by tar balls in Pensacola and reports of the gooey stuff turning up as far east as St. Joe Beach.
Singer Jimmy Buffett is trying to do his part, appearing on CNN and in photo ops promoting the Gulf states. He has a big incentive: His new Margaritaville Beach Hotel just opened in Pensacola. He even has a penchant for crowd-pleasing lines.
"When I wrote 'Margaritaville,' 'all those tourists covered in oil,' this is not what I had in mind," Buffett told CNN's Anderson Cooper.
I'm waiting for Florida to build an ad campaign around Buffett or other recognizable faces with Florida connections who could urge travelers to support Panhandle businesses as well as promote the many parts of the state that have, so far, escaped the spill's reach.
"We're working on it," said Carol Dover, president of the restaurant and lodging association.
She said the ads created so far, however bland, have been crucial to the panhandle.
"Right now we cannot do enough advertising," she said.
And while splashy spots, celebrity-laced or not, may sound expensive and difficult to produce, remember two things: Lee County pulled off its attention-grabber last month for only about $500,000, including the media buys and, in 2006, Louisiana rolled out a star-studded post-Katrina tourism campaign for about $7 million, a fraction of the total the state hopes to get from BP.
Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County bureau, expects to continue to use edited versions of the ads that originally aired on the same days they were filmed to provide near real-time reports of beach conditions, and she hopes they get a second life through social media.
If that happens, Florida will continue to reap a sweet payoff in exchange for Dan's initial briny swig.
Beth Kassab can be reached at email@example.com or 407-420-5448 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at OrlandoSentinel.com/thebottomline.