NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- Even as BP struggles to control the oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico and government authorities and scientists struggle to determine the extent of the environmental damage, Gulf Coast states have landed on a way for the oil company to start making amends: shoring up their tourism industry with advertising dollars.
Authorities in Mississippi, Alabama and Florida have turned to the energy giant to fund ad campaigns, fearing that their summer-tourism business will disappear as major media outlets continue to fill the news cycle with reports and images of the catastrophe. There's a lot at stake. According to figures cited by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Gulf of Mexico's shores and beaches stretching from Texas to Florida support a $20 billion tourist industry.
"We just want to get the word out that we are open for business," said Kenneth Montana, president of the Harrison County Tourism Commission, the convention and business district bureau on the Mississippi Gulf Coast.
But even if it does foot every bill, BP is likely to be damned in any case, as critics will no doubt charge that the funds are better spent on cleanup rather than tourism marketing.
John Pack, a BP spokesman, told Ad Age that the company has gotten requests from a number of sources but has yet to make a decision on any of them. He said the company will consider all of the requests and get back to everyone who has submitted one. "We will talk to them about it and make some decisions based on those conversations," Mr. Pack said. "But it's too early to say that we are doing one and not the other."
In a televised interview with Mississippi's WLOX, BP Chief Executive Tony Hayward said he'd told Gov. Haley Barbour "we would support him and his advertising campaign."
Mr. Montana said the state has received some funding from BP, some $500,000 for a regionwide generic marketing campaign. He has put in a separate request to BP for $7.5 million to fund a campaign for the Mississippi Gulf Coast and the Harrison County Tourism Commission.
Mr. Montana spoke "directly" with BP's Mississippi representative on Friday morning and was told that his request was under review. Mr. Montana said the $7.5 million represents three spots per day on national TV networks. "That's not a lot to counteract the bad publicity," he said.
The director of the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel told Reuters that BP had spent $200,000 on a media buy for a 60-second spot telling potential tourists that the state's beaches were still open.
After meeting last week with the board of directors of Visit Florida, the group that oversees the state's tourism industry, Florida Gov. Charlie Crist sent a letter to Lamar McKay, president of BP America, asking the company to help fund a tourism ad campaign to the tune of nearly $35 million.
In his letter to BP, Mr. Crist wrote: "Unfortunately, because of the constant images of millions of gallons of oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, potential visitors are receiving negative and false information. We need your urgent assistance to correct the record. This action is critical to our economic survival."
Chris Cate, deputy press secretary for the governor's office, told Ad Age last week that BP had yet to respond to the letter.
Kathy Torian, corporate communications manager for Visit Florida, feels BP should "absolutely" pay for a tourism campaign. It recently got the go-ahead to reallocate $500,000 from its spring and summer ad budget and to pull $2 million from its emergency risk fund to pay for an ad campaign.
"That [$2.5 million] will only go so far toward the regional and global ad buys we need to make," Ms. Torian said.
Whatever dollar amounts the states and their tourism boards decide on, it will be small change for BP. Recent reports have stated that during the first quarter of 2010, BP's daily profit was $93 million.
But how this will play out in local and national media is another issue.
Damon Moglen, director of Greenpeace USA's global warming campaign, said BP's funding of a tourism campaign of the Gulf might come across as "bizarre if not inappropriate" to a lot of people in the region.
"Given that tens of thousands of peoples' livelihoods and ways of life are at stake, I think that people would feel that BP paying to stop the spill, clean it up and recompense people for the damage is the first order of business," Mr. Moglen said. "Incidentally, just those activities are currently being talked about as a potentially $20 billion cost."
Eric Dezenhall, CEO and co-founder of Dezenhall Resources, said paying for an ad campaign is not going to endear BP to the public.
"Regardless of what a company does in this situation, the outrage level is so high that any individual tactic will be deemed insufficient," Mr. Dezenhall said.
He cites Exxon's response of spending and donating billions of dollars on the clean-up effort and to the affected communities after the Valdez oil tanker spill in Alaska in 1989. "They didn't get a parade, but imagine if they didn't do that. . . . You don't get brownie points for cleaning up the mess that everyone knows you made."