Gambling grab for Va.’s iconic slogan is distasteful. But is a state law necessary?

February 21, 2022 12:02 am
A "Virginia is for Lovers" hat on display in the gift shop at the Virginia Capitol. (Photo by Graham Moomaw)

A “Virginia is for Lovers” hat on display in the gift shop at the Virginia Capitol. (Photo by Graham Moomaw)

News item: A Virginia senator pushes legislation to prohibit gambling companies from ripping off the commonwealth’s universally recognized, trademarked tourism marketing pitch line, “Virginia is for Lovers.”

The story left me torn, as I suspect was true for a lot of Virginians. Bookmakers and casino operators had bastardized the commonwealth’s 53-year-old slogan with “Virginia is for Bettors.”

Perhaps more than any other four-word vacation industry declaration ever uttered, Virginia’s association with lovers has withstood the test of time, proving itself as perennially resonant as it is resilient.

Since its debut, “Virginia is for Lovers” has earned pretty much every meaningful accolade that a marketing campaign can. It is to tourism promotion what Tom Brady is to quarterbacking and Michael Jordan is to the windmill slam dunk.

Its genius is its simplicity.

Initially, the campaign was envisioned with modifiers such as “History Lovers” or “Outdoors Lovers” or “Art Lovers.” But ditching the descriptors left a cleaner, more direct and memorable slogan that rolls naturally off the tongue, can be appropriated to most any purpose, yet tastefully suggests an actual aventure romantique.

It was a breakout campaign for Richmond advertising prodigies George Woltz and David Martin, partners in the firm that blossomed into The Martin Agency, creator of prominent campaigns for such national brands as DoorDash, Old Navy, Oreo cookies and, perhaps most memorably, GEICO and its Cockney-accented spokesgecko.

The first “Lovers” ad, in the March 1969 issue of Modern Bride, re-imagines a wedding in the Jamestown settlement that is believed to be the first in an English colony in the Americas. In bold white type against the dark, monochrome photo of models in period costume portraying the bride and groom: In 1608, Anne Burras and John Laydon started something. The Virginia Honeymoon.

Over the years, “Lovers” has been adapted to countless tourism promotions as varied as music festivals, outreach to foodies on behalf of elite restaurants, Winchester’s spring Apple Blossom Festivals, the annual Chincoteague Pony Swim and, naturally, honeymoon venues and romantic getaways.

So when corporate bookmakers that now glut the gaming landscape made a clumsy play to bastardize Virginia’s slogan with “Virginia is for Bettors,” Senate Minority Leader Tommy Norment saw red.

Norment, R-James City, heard the phrase in an ad on his car radio during a drive to Richmond.

“Frankly, it annoyed me,” Norment told a Senate gambling subcommittee last month as originally reported by the Virginia Mercury’s Graham Moomaw. “We’ve spent a lifetime trying to market ‘Virginia is for Lovers.’ I just felt it was trespassing on it.”

Damn skippy, Tommy. I’m right there with you.

You don’t invest as much time and treasure as the Virginia Tourism Corporation has lo these many years to sustain and build a wildly successful trademark only to see it manhandled by some garish outside interest, particularly a line of work punishable by prison time not long ago.

While I applaud the senator’s resolve to nip this in the bud, I question his proposed remedy: a whole new state law that specifically targets the use of “Virginia is for Bettors” by sports betting and casino gaming operators and their affiliates to advertise their products and services. Violators would be subject to a civil penalty as high as $50,000.

You see the slippery slope such an approach presents for the commonwealth and its elected policymakers. At what point is no peeve so pedantic as not to warrant a new section in the Code of Virginia to forbid it?

Isn’t that one of the reasons we have courts and intellectual property law?

It is, Norment said in an interview last week. A lawyer himself, he said that a cease-and-desist letter from an attorney or even being served with a complaint, filed with a court of proper jurisdiction, would be the usual approach. But, unlike the vast majority of Virginians, Norment has in his arsenal the awesome might of Virginia’s lawmaking apparatus to aim at that which annoys him.

“As much as anything else, I did this to send a message,” he said. “And I think I got their attention.”

He said seeing the tourism mantra misappropriated struck a nerve, and I can relate. His 3rd Senate District includes some of Virginia’s most celebrated historical tourism venues – Jamestown and Yorktown – and it borders Colonial Williamsburg. That’s a big deal, especially in his neck of the woods.

Aside from being ticked off, Norment said he was concerned that the usual legal steps might not produce results as swiftly as legislation that would be widely covered by a Capitol press corps always hungry for a bill dripping in pop-culture buzz.

“I thought they might take the attitude, ‘Let’s run with this as long as we can get away with it and maybe there’s no downside to it,” he said.

The earned media his bill has garnered, he added, “has captured the attention of the gaming operations to the point where they’ve stopped running the ad.”

True enough. A quick Google search shows plenty of coverage of his Senate Bill 96 by the mainstream media with which Norment has had an often fractious relationship.

The bill won unanimous passage in the Democratic-controlled Senate on Feb. 8 and is now in the Republican-ruled House of Delegates for consideration.

So now that the “bettors” spots have been taken down by seemingly chastened gambling interests, is it time to move on, declare victory and let SB96 die? Might Virginia lawmakers think better of what amounts to killing a horsefly with a Howitzer?

Don’t bet on it.

Norment is intent on seeing the bill through House passage in the remaining weeks of the 2022 General Assembly and having Gov. Glenn Youngkin sign it into law.

“If there is another entity out there that might think about trespassing on our tourism marketing, I want this to make them think again,” he said.

This wouldn’t be the first time Virginia has cluttered its books with mole hills made into mountains – or at least given it one hell of a try.

In 2000, the General Assembly passed, and Virginia voters ratified, an amendment to the state Constitution protecting a right to hunt and fish that was on nobody’s endangered species list. Five years later, a bill that would have fined teens for wearing trousers so low as to prominently expose their underwear (or worse) passed the House before the Senate put it out of its misery. In 2008, then-Del. (and now Sen.) Lionell Spruill Sr., D-Chesapeake, passionately (albeit unsuccessfully) advocated on the House floor for legislation that would outlaw Truck Nutz – replica testicles, available in a wide array of festive colors and designs, that dangle from the rear bumpers of pickup trucks. In 2012, Virginia became a comedians’ goldmine with a bill that would have compelled women seeking abortions to first undergo invasive vaginal ultrasound exams.

I am no fan of the gaming industry. I don’t bet on sports, not so much out of any sense of moral disdain but, rather, because I am a hopeless pessimist slouching toward fatalism. Seriously, I could find a way to lose a bet on the sun rising in the east, so I have a deathly fear of the smartphone sports book apps that would gladly suck my bank account dry.

For decades, sports wagering operated outside the law even as the names and hangouts of bookies were open secrets in every community in America.

Now, in Virginia, it is a fully legal and robustly marketed corporate enterprise, yielding substantial revenues to the commonwealth since it got rolling last year. Legal sports gambling was enabled by a 2018 U.S. Supreme Court ruling and by legislation enacted in 2020 by the same Virginia General Assembly that is about to pass an extraordinary targeted rebuke for ripping off a venerated tourism phrase.

When all is said and done, Virginia will still be for lovers and its slogan safe from imitators. Let us rejoice in that. But we’re also left to ponder: is this the highest and best use of those we send to Richmond to write our laws?

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]