Sex and the tourist-starved city; Steamy advertising is nothing new in the travel industry, but now some fairly sedate spots are heating things up.


A crooked finger, a comely smile, a flirtatious wink -- there's little advertisers won't do this time of the year to get you and your sweetheart to send the kids off to the sitter and hop into bed for the weekend.

Not your own bed, of course. They mean at a hotel, in a destination like Colonial Williamsburg or the Inner Harbor.

Tourism dollars tend to dry up considerably during these cold winter months, and tourist destinations that are traditionally family-oriented are dreaming up some racy, if not risque, ads that aim to get lovers all hot and bothered. Oh, and to spend some dough as a consequence.

Virginia, of course, has long sold itself as a place "for lovers." But new newspaper ads for Colonial Williamsburg, a place where the raciest thing you might see is the ruffle of a Colonial dame's petticoat, takes this notion a bit further.

"Need a romantic getaway?" it reads. "Try the place where the country was conceived."

A stoic George Washington, staring out from one of his famous tight-lipped portraits, is smothered in lipstick-red kiss prints -- presumably from Martha.

"How else do you think the Founding Fathers and Mothers became founding fathers and mothers?" the ad's headline screams.

Subtlety, it's clear, is no priority.

Another case in point: the new television ad playing on stations within a 150-mile radius of Baltimore trying to lure couples to the Inner Harbor.

In it, we happen upon a super-fit couple, a raven-haired seductress and her eager paramour, in the middle of a frenzied session of shedding clothes in their hotel room. Each layer of clothing identifies a different Baltimore attraction -- but who is paying attention to that? It's the spot's sexiness that everyone will remember.

Advertisers aren't breaking any taboos with these funny, suggestive ads. But it does up the ante on how far cities and towns will go to fill empty hotel rooms.

Not that anyone is going to start confusing Colonial Williamsburg, or even Baltimore, with an adult Club Med, says Don Just, president of Just Partners Inc., the Richmond advertising firm that created the George Washington ads.

But, he says, something had to be done to capture attention during a traditionally slow season for many tourist spots. This time of year, travel to nonresort destinations is down because of the cold weather and because children are in school.

While Just says he doesn't think the sexier advertising is a trend yet, "I do think one thing you are seeing is that marketers are breaking away from traditional ways of marketing their particular towns."

So what's next? Victoria's Secret models doing double-duty in city tourism ads?

No, says Marjorie Valin, vice president of public affairs for the American Advertising Federation.

She says that the ads are reflecting society's more relaxed attitudes about sex and playfulness, but that they are meant to be more about humor than titillation.

Neil Alperstein, a professor of pop culture at Loyola College, says cities that take the steamy route to luring tourists have to watch their step.

"Marketers have to be sensitive and strike a balance so they don't brand their product with the wrong image," he warns.

Like Baltimore as a haven for tourist trysts of wild abandon? For a city whose primary TV presence is its role in "Homicide: Life on the Street," it could be worse.

Pub Date: 01/17/99

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