Hearts Beat Loud: Exploring 50 Years of ‘Virginia Is for Lovers’

August 2019
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In 1969, my husband, Tom, and I — living in Texas with the U.S. Army — experienced firsthand the chuckles from friends who saw Virginia’s new travel slogan, “Virginia Is for Lovers.”

People felt compelled to tell us that they thought Virginia was a “conservative” state. The Virginia State Travel Service (now the Virginia Tourism Corporation) and the Martin & Woltz creative team (later, the Martin Agency), which had won the state’s advertising contract in 1968 and had created the slogan, remained unflustered amid the winks and titters.

What I didn’t know then — for example, the new slogan was intended to target a new, younger demographic — I absorbed quickly after joining Virginia Tourism’s PR team on Feb. 2, 1982. The anniversary of the slogan had never been celebrated. After five years of doing the industry newsletter, assorted news releases, feature articles and marketing trips to New York (I’d been a Richmond magazine editor previously), I advocated for making the 20th anniversary our major PR push in 1989. 

Creating a team effort

Staff member Sue Brinkerhoff Bland, who also put together our Silver Anvil-winning program on Virginia’s accessible travel, managed the logistics of a large public event on Richmond’s Capitol Square, one in which First Lady Jeannie Baliles, with a bit of assistance, unfurled a gigantic, soft-sculpted heart from the columns of Mr. Jefferson’s Capitol.
We’d commissioned a local sculptor to create the red felt love symbol. State officials, the public and representatives of Virginia’s tourism industry — outfitted, per Sue’s instructions, in apparel representing people from 1607 Jamestown to 20th-century astronauts trained at Langley Air Force Base — surrounded the building with its towering heart on three sides.

Later, the VTC, with Sue’s guidance, donated the “valentine” to the American Red Cross, which used the fabric for blankets.

Images are a vital part of every media campaign; these were the responsibility of the VTC’s audio-visual services manager, who contracted with photographers to support our PR programs carrying Virginia’s love theme into major cities in North America, the U.K., Europe and Japan.

Many print-media colleagues we’d connected with through our professional associations carried Virginia tourism articles: From the 1980s into the early years of this century, one article could reach as many as 5 million readers via a single consumer magazine; a single broadcast could garner as many as 20 million viewers or listeners.

Becoming a NASCAR sponsor

Before the 25th anniversary, another PR staff member helped us launch and promote the state’s “Virginia Is for Lovers” NASCAR racecar — #25, driven by 25-year-old Hermie Sadler.

The $200,000 per year for the car contract came from VTC Advertising — the department that had initiated the idea, per the suggestion of the VTC’s advertising agency at the time, Siddall, Matus & Coughter.

Virginia became the first state to use a NASCAR racecar in tourism promotion. The car traveled in its special hauler with Virginia’s toll-free tourism number plastered on the sides. Every Monday morning, research analysts could tell from the number of phone calls how effective the hauler’s travels through various states had been during the previous weekend.

Learning from the past

Historical background in anniversary media kits was essential. Our PR team included the story of how the slogan had come about: The first ad with the new slogan ran in the March 1969 issue of Modern Bride magazine, carrying a “safe” love theme rooted in history — the first marriage in the Virginia colony, joining Anne Burras and Robert Laydon, at Jamestown in 1608. Successive ads portrayed the state as a destination for lovers of beaches and mountains — and later, in the mid-1970s, when Busch Gardens and Kings Dominion opened, theme parks. 

According to Martin & Woltz’s research, the love for everything Virginia offers originated with copywriter Robin McLaughlin, who had suggested pairing “Virginia Is for Lovers of Beaches” with beach images, “Virginia Is for Lovers of Mountains” with mountain images, etc. But Martin thought that was too limiting. Woltz agreed, and the prepositional phrases were dropped, which meant “Virginia Is for Lovers” could be used with any Virginia travel images.

Spreading more ‘Love’

The “I Love New York” state campaign that followed in 1977 was the first spinoff of the heart, which went on to become widely copied around the world — for products as well as destinations. Our original PR team has been gone from Virginia Tourism for a good number of years. (I retired with 25-plus years of service in late 2007.)

Like most of us alive at the time, we all remember 9/11 poignantly — I was on the last flight from Newark to Richmond when terror struck — and how the VTC marketing team sent the NYC marketing team the message, “Love from our heart to yours” by the way of a full page in The New York Times.

Following the collapse of the Twin Towers, this was a heavy but significant message underscoring the “lovers” history. In September 2009, the slogan became part of the Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame.

The four of us on the PR team stayed long enough to work on “love” campaigns for B&Bs, music, food and other themes. We put together public-private partnerships with travel-related companies such as Mobil and Canada Dry. Last year, travelers spent $25 billion in Virginia, which supported more than 232,000 jobs and contributed more than $1.73 billion to state and local tax revenues. By comparison, in 1969, total travelers’ expenditures in Virginia were $809 million.

Keeping the message alive

The VTC kicked off a new promotion in partnership with Volkswagen on the first day of summer —June 21 — and will end the promotion 50 days later, on Aug. 10: Details were still in discussion at press time, but staff members were working on a fleet of Love Bugs for deployment across the state, and in major out-of-state markets.

At least 39 destinations across Virginia — and more than 400 partners — are activating programs, pop-up events and giveaways via Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, media platforms nonexistent 50 years ago. Celebrations might include restaurants offering a $50 prix fixe menu, breweries and wineries promoting special editions of “Lovers Lager” and “Lovers Blend,” respectively, and perhaps a few items at 1969 prices.

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