RICHMOND, Va. – Virginia is still for lovers, but the state's tourism agency will eliminate images of people making heart symbols with their hands in its upcoming advertising campaign because the gesture is also used by a violent street gang.
The Virginia is for Lovers "Live Passionately" campaign will remove images of models making the hand gesture, one of several signs associated with the Gangster Disciples, Virginia Tourism Corp. officials said Friday. The gesture shows thumbs and index fingers formed into a heart.
"Our intent was to show people using their hands to make a heart to signify 'Virginia is for Lovers,' " the state's longtime tourism slogan, the agency's president Alisa Bailey said in a statement. "For the majority of people, the heart sign is a symbol of love -- and the campaign's images intended to convey a love of travel and a love of Virginia."
At first, tourism officials thought the gang was a small group in South Carolina and continued with the ads.
Then the agency received e-mails this week pointing out that the gesture is flashed by members of Gangster Disciples, also known as Black Gangster Disciples. The Chicago-based group is known for its large-scale crack-cocaine operations, and was featured in a chapter of the best-seller "Freakonomics" in which a sociology graduate student gained the trust of gang members to learn about the group's operational structure.
"Out of respect to those who have concerns about the use of this symbol, we will adjust the creative images in our ad campaign to eliminate any further misinterpretation of the heart/hand symbol," Bailey's statement said. "We regret if anyone interpreted the symbol as anything other than a symbol of love as was intended."
The tourism agency has been running selected ads to preview its "Live Passionately" campaign, but the full campaign doesn't roll out until spring, spokeswoman Tamra Talmadge-Anderson said. "So now we have got time to make adjustments" before the formal launch, she said.
Bailey has said that about $400,000 was spent on developing the campaign, excluding the purchase of ad time on broadcast outlets. The ad was designed by Virginia Beach-based BCF, which also has done work for the Washington Redskins, the Discovery Channel and Amelia Island, Fla.