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Virginia Is for Lovers — of what? 

Love for Sale

My wife and I have enjoyed quite a few surprises since we left Charlottesville last summer and moved to a small town in the mountains of upstate New York. The tap water tastes better. The winter wasn't near as brutal as everyone said it would be. The public radio station is much better than anything in Virginia. And when the light is right, the Catskills resemble the Blue Ridge.

But the biggest surprise I've had up here had nothing to do with New York. The other evening I was sitting in front of the television when on came a commercial for Virginia! But this was no appeal to Northern tourists to visit the historic sites in Williamsburg; no, this was a come-on to Big Yankee Money to bring their business south to the commonwealth.

Sponsored by the Virginia Economic Development Partnership, the slick ad extolled the virtues of doing business in Virginia. We've got that pro-business attitude in Virginia, the spot bragged. At the end of the commercial these glaring words went up on the screen: "Virginia Is for Business."

What?! Did I actually see that? Has the heart-tugging and time-honored slogan "Virginia Is for Lovers" been co-opted in some covert surgical strike by big business? Is there nothing sacred in this age of hypercommercialization? I did a little digging to try and find out if Virginia is still for Lovers.

The slogan "Virginia Is for Lovers" was created at the advertising agency of Martin & Woltz in 1969 and was produced for the Virginia State Travel Service — now the Virginia Tourism Corp., or VTC. According to the VTC Web site, a $100-a-week copywriter at Martin & Woltz named Robin McLaughlin came up with an idea to put "Virginia is for Beach Lovers" in ads for Virginia Beach; "Virginia is for Mountain Lovers" in ads for Shenandoah National Park; and "Virginia is for History Lovers" in ads for — well, you get the picture.

Martin & Woltz liked the concept but decided to condense it, so "Virginia is for Lovers" was born. The rest is tourism history.

Of course, without the modifiers, the slogan has always sounded a bit oo-la-la strange — suggesting mental images of lovemaking more than it did picturesque beaches and mountains. But "lovers" fit with the Age of Aquarius crowd back in '69, and it has pleased generations of tourists ever since.

"Virginia Is for Lovers" — with its red heart in place of the v in "Lovers" — has become one of the most successful tourism campaigns in U.S. history, which explains why it's been copied. It wasn't long before New York came out with its own version — "I [big red heart] New York," which led to a number of obnoxious television commercials in the 1970s and '80s. (Remember the cast of "Cats!" singing "I Love New York" in Times Square?)

All of which made me wonder if any organization can hop on the "Virginia Is for Lovers" bandwagon and morph the familiar slogan for their own purposes? Could we have a "Virginia Is for Transgender Lovers" ad campaign or "Virginia Is for Beer Lovers" or "Virginia Is for Lovers of Boiled Peanuts"?

I put that question to Martha Steger, director of public relations for the Virginia Tourism Corporation. "No," she said flatly. "No one can just co-opt the slogan and use it," she said. "It is a trademarked slogan."

Then how do you explain "Virginia Is for Business?"

Steger referred me to the Virginian Economic Development Partnership (VEDP) which created the slogan. Jill Lawrence is that organization's communications manager. Since the Economic Development Partnership and the Tourism Corp. are two chummy state authorities (they even share the same floors in the same building), no one cried foul when the VEDP launched the "Virginia Is for Business" slogan in January of 1999.

But anyone can see it's a rip-off of the "Virginia is for Lovers" campaign. I asked Lawrence, don't you think that's a little funny?

Long pause. "No, it's not funny," she said. "We like the slogan. It really captures the message we're trying to send, that Virginia is good for business. We're not just for lovers anymore. Besides, we believe it's a totally different slogan."

Totally different, huh?

"Well," she said slowly, "I guess the Virginia is for part is the same — but business is different."

Then came the real shocker. Lawrence told me that the VEDP — which received a hefty $21 million budget this past year from the state — actually paid an advertising agency to come up with "Virginia Is for Business."

You heard right. The state spent taxpayers' money in 1969 to come up with "Virginia Is for Lovers," then turned around 30 years later and spent more taxpayers' money to pay some creative types to come up with "Virginia Is for Business."

Bruce Osborne is the creative director at the Barber Martin Agency in Richmond (no connection to Martin & Woltz) which developed the "Virginia Is for Business" slogan. "There were five of us who worked on that campaign," he explained to me by phone. "It basically came down to the fact that there was so much equity in the 'Virginia is for Lovers' [slogan], the most economical thing to do was to take a shortcut and piggyback on that."

In this corporate age it seems nothing is safe from the talons of commercialization. Martin Luther King has been digitally resurrected to sell telecommunications; public schools are conspiring with soft drink companies to instill brand loyalty in our children; each day Americans are bombarded with an estimated 3,000 individual marketing messages.

And now they're even making commercials out of the commercials — old slogans are brought back to life, mutated and repackaged for new audiences.

Is Virginia still for lovers? Sure — the insatiable lovers of big business. Oo-la-la.

Coy Barefoot wrote "The Corner: A History of Student Life at the University of Virginia," which was released in March. His next book, Thomas Jefferson on Leadership, will be published next spring.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.
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