It sounded like a good idea.
Visit Florida, the state's tourism agency, struck a deal with Coastal Living magazine to persuade people to, well, visit Florida. At a reduced rate, visitor bureaus and resorts from the Panhandle to Key West chipped in to buy a seven-page glossy advertising section. On the first page, a barefoot, wispy-haired boy stands on a pristine beach and holds a lemon yellow kite over his head. Above a distant breaking surf, at the top of the page: "Florida — STAY & PLAY GUIDE."
The trouble is, if you used the subsequent pages as an actual guide, you would in several cases neither stay nor play anywhere near the places you intended.
The ad put the beaches of St. Pete and Clearwater on the east coast (not so bad if you dig sunrises and rocket launches); it said three of the Panhandle's most posh coastal communities were west of Destin, instead of east (Mississippi is just as nice anyway, right?); and it gave Ocala and Marion county Weeki Wachee Springs (mermaids for everyone!).
Though five of the pages prominently display "VISITFLORIDA.COM," spokeswoman Kathy Torian placed the blame entirely on the magazine.
Just because the agency put its "stamp of approval" on the package, she said, didn't mean state officials were responsible for its accuracy. In this case, Torian added, Coastal Living hired a freelance writer to produce the content and was contractually obligated to check the facts.
Still, she acknowledged that someone from Visit Florida had reviewed the pages before they went to press, but only to adjust the layout or point out anything "we're not comfortable with." For instance, Torian said, folks in the Panhandle don't like their home referred to as the "Panhandle."
Visit Florida doesn't take responsibility for the veracity of the ads because of how many of them it buys and arranges.
"That would require us to spend money to hire a full-time fact checker," Torian said of the agency, which the Legislature gave $63.5 million in public dollars for this fiscal year.
A spokeswoman for Coastal Living, which has a circulation of more than 650,000, declined to say where the freelancer lived or how much the ad cost. (Torian said she didn't know.) The magazine's publisher, Greg Keyes, issued a statement of regret and said the publication would issue corrections and offer new promotional pages in future issues.
People whose communities were miscast said Visit Florida shouldn't be spared of all blame.
"What a faux pas," said Walton County Commissioner Cindy Meadows. "Yow."
Just Tuesday, she said, county officials had debated how to better brand their beaches, which tourists tend to confuse with the horde of others in the region.
"This," she said, "is probably not going to help us a whole lot."
Tony Satterfield, a member of the Pinellas Tourist Development Council, feared that those not familiar with the area might actually believe our beaches are on the Atlantic coast.
Hernando Commissioner Dave Russell struggled to understand how a state agency that controls so much money, solely intended for marketing Florida, could allow such a mistake.
"I'm sure the people of Ocala are just thrilled," he said. "They got mermaids. Our mermaids."
Times news researchers Natalie Watson and Carolyn Edds contributed to this report.