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Video killed the Savannah star
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And thank you.

Together, we may have saved the world. Or at least saved the world from the worst video in the history of videos.

A couple of weeks ago, Visit Savannah, the local tourism bureau, debuted to much fanfare a “viral video” they hoped would attract more visitors to Savannah.

The video features General Oglethorpe coming to life and down from his pedestal in Chippewa Square, complete with full–body gold makeup that, as the video goes on, appears to fade and darken into something close to minstrel-show blackface.

Accompanied by an older gentleman dressed in similar fashion to a Confederate Army officer, Oglethorpe promptly leads a conga line of passersby through the streets of Savannah — Carnival Cruise–style samba music in the background — visiting high–profile tourist points like River Street, the Jepson Center, and of course Paula Deen’s restaurant.

Did I mention the ghosts dancing past Colonial Cemetery? Wearing what look like white sheets?

The video closes with “General O” gazing longingly — lasciviously? — at the statue of the Waving Girl. (Leaving aside the bizarre innuendo of statue–on–statue romance, those familiar with the background of the real Florence Martus, who possibly suffered from a form of mental disorder, might find this image especially uncomfortable.)

Viral it went, but not as intended.

After posting the link on the Connect Savannah Facebook page, we received dozens of comments, about 98 percent of which considered the video essentially an insulting embarrassment to the city and a total waste of its budget of $15,000, which was funded by hotel/motel sales tax collected by Visit Savannah on behalf of the local citizenry.

Connect readers were far from the only local observers heaping scorn on the three and a half minute video, but Visit Savannah President Joseph Marinelli did give you special honors.

“In the YouTube comments on the video, most of the comments are overwhelmingly positive,” Marinelli tells me by phone a few days afterward. “At Savannahnow, they’re running about 50/50.

“At your page, not so much.”

But Marinelli says it’s OK if you and I aren’t so appreciative of how our tax dollars were spent, since we really weren’t the target market for the video anyway.

“Our target audience is really more outside the market, not necessarily the Connect readership,” he says. “Where we fared really well was with groups outside Savannah.”

Marinelli also said pre–screenings to various local groups such as the Chamber of Commerce were also very positive.

I asked Marinelli to address one of the core objections to the video, namely that many observers said it displayed a shallow and cartoonish view of Savannah’s selling points to the outside world.

As always, the question boils down to: What kind of tourist do we want here?

“That question drives every decision we make. I define the right kind of visitor as one who is likelier to spend more money,  return for another visit, and tell friends and family about Savannah,” Marinelli says.

“Look back on some of the groups we’ve had come into town recently: The Ferrari Club, the Porsche Club. Next month we have the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon, and that’s another high–spend demographic.”

I loathe political correctness. But nonetheless Visit Savannah is charged with marketing a racially diverse city, and some aspects of the video beg further scrutiny.

I made it clear to Marinelli that nobody thinks anyone at Visit Savannah had the slightest actual racist intent in some of the more eyebrow–raising scenes. Such an accusation would be preposterous and wildly defamatory.

But I did ask why none of the marketing professionals working for him — nor the august minds at the Chamber of Commerce for that matter — seemed to notice any potential PR problems in that department.

In short, and I paraphrase myself:

What the hell were y’all thinking?

“It’s not fair to say we didn’t talk through these things. We kicked around about 19 different versions,” Marinelli responds.

“One of the first suggestions we had was to do a flash mob. But we said, nah, that’s overdone. Eventually we ended up with sort of a knockoff of a flash mob, which is where the conga line comes in. We wanted to show a sense of vibrancy and people having fun in the city,” he says.

As for some of the video’s more unfortunate makeup and costuming choices:

“Quite frankly, it was a 12–hour shooting day, and by 6 p.m. the general’s makeup was looking a little peaked,” laughs Marinelli.

“As for the ghosts, you get into this whole thing of whether you should call something haunted, or paranormal, or what. In the end we decided it was best to avoid all that and just have fun with it,” he says.

What about Visit Savannah going with a Bluffton, S.C.–based production company rather than one in, you know, Savannah?

“We invited bids from local, regional, and national companies with destination marketing experience, and that one was the low bidder,” says Marinelli.

“We are involved with marketing the entire region, not just one city,” he clarifies. “Visit Savannah participates in a regional marketing effort on both sides of the river.”

According to Marinelli, that regional effort focuses on four key destinations: Savannah, Charleston, Hilton Head, and Amelia Island, Florida.

“That’s two classic cities with lots of history, and two nationally renowned golf destinations,” he says. “Visit Savannah is involved with the larger effort of trying to bring people to all four of them.”

In response to the oft–voiced comment, “I could’ve made a better video myself,” Visit Savannah decided to make critics put up or shut up. They are now sponsoring a contest to make your own YouTube promo video for Savannah.

The prize money intentionally mirrors the original $15,000 price tag, with $7500 going to the first prize winner, $5000 to the second, and $2500 to the third.

“We wanted to stay away from doing something cheesy like awarding $500 and a free stay at a local hotel,” Marinelli says. “One criticism was we spent $15,000 on the video, so we wanted the contest to offer the same amount.”

For more info, go to YouTube and search for “Savannah video contest” to see Joe Marinelli’s short video explaining the competition.

You’ll note that in an accompanying link, Visit Savannah refers to the original video as a “parody,” implying — perhaps disingenuously? — that they expected or even engineered the controversy.

But Marinelli insists the whole incident was not a PR gimmick.

“We had fun with the project and now we understand the nuances that much better. We’re going to take this experience and become better tourism marketers,” Marinelli says.

“At least people should give us props for getting in the game. We got out on the edge a little bit and took some chances,” he concludes. “There really aren’t a lot of destination markets that have tried this kind of thing.”

So why such fuss over a YouTube video, with everything else that’s going on in the world?

Visit Savannah is tasked with selling the city — selling us — to the outside world. They do so by spending tax money levied on our behalf.

Everyone in Savannah has a stake not only in how that money is spent, but in how we’re portrayed.

Even Connect readers!

You only get one chance to make a first impression, and Visit Savannah has the all-important job in many cases of making that first impression count. It’s a weighty responsibility.

Let’s hope they can indeed learn from their mistakes, as everyone should strive to do, and sell Savannah in a way that does us all proud.