Two weeks ago, Pitbull stood surrounded by admirers in Los Angeles' Celia Cruz Square, receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. As he often does, he brought up his childhood in South Florida.
"To be here and go from La Sawesera, La Pequena Habana, Wynwood, Hialeah, Opa-Locka, Carol City, Liberty City, Allapattah, all these different neighborhoods," he said, "and to be able to be here in Hollywood, getting a star, my friends, it's priceless."
“Priceless” is a good word when it comes to Pitbull and Florida. A year ago, the chart-topping rapper — born Armando Christian Perez, a.k.a. Mr. 305, a.k.a. Mr. Worldwide — signed a deal with the public-private partnership Visit Florida to become the state's tourism ambassador.
For Pitbull, 35, it's one endorsement among many. He has deals with Bud Light, Pepsi, Fiat, Norwegian Cruise Lines and many other brands. He has a fragrance, a clothing line, even his own slot machine. He is a relentless collaborator, lending his brash, bilingual bark to smash singles with artists like Chris Brown (International Love), Enrique Iglesias (I Like It), Usher (DJ Got Us Fallin' in Love), Jennifer Lopez (On the Floor) and Kesha (Timber). He is as close to a walking brand magnet as any artist in entertainment — and with a reported social media reach of 100 million, why wouldn't he be?
For Visit Florida, though, the deal did not come without criticism. Why would a partially state-funded entity recruit a global pop star as a spokesman? Why weren't the terms of their deal disclosed? What were Floridians really getting out of this deal with the king of "dale"?
The contract between Pitbull and Visit Florida was signed Aug. 3, 2015 — a year ago next week. As he hits Tampa Saturday for a concert at Amalie Arena, this feels like a good time to ask: Has everyone gotten their money's worth?
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Miami-born to Cuban immigrants, Pitbull has never been shy about crediting South Florida's melting pot landscape for his cross cultural appeal. Signed and mentored by 2 Live Crew's Luther Campbell, he titled his first album M.I.A.M.I.; on the cover, he's wearing a hat bearing the area code 305.
Over the years, Pitbull has rapped passionately about his hometown. "I am Miami's heat," he raps on Defend Dade. "305 til the death of me," he raps on International Love. "No ifs, ands or buts about it, I'm from Dade," he raps on Welcome to Miami.
But it was actually the generic party jam Sexy Beaches, from 2014's Globalization, that prompted his team to reach out to state tourism officials.
"I want to go somewhere exotic, let the sun massage my body, meet a sexy stranger in the lobby," a voice sings before Pitbull barges in to shout: "Sexy beaches! Hotels!"
On every level, it sounded like a tourism marketing jingle. As it happens, that's exactly what Visit Florida needed.
"We're the No. 1 destination in the country for Gen X, and the No. 1 destination for baby boomers, but we're No. 2 for millennials," said Visit Florida president and CEO Will Seccombe. "That's a key focus for us. And the growing influence of Latin American and domestic Hispanic travelers is also a growing and very, very important market."
Enter Pitbull and his social media army. He "has the ability to tap into a group that is not easily influenced by marketing," Seccombe said, giving his agency "the opportunity to begin to position Florida not as where your grandparents went to retire, but as a hip, cool destination."
In announcing the deal, Visit Florida promised Pitbull would use the agency's #LoveFL hashtag on Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere, including at live concerts and during a Miami-based New Year's Eve special on Fox. There would even be a #LoveFL-branded Sexy Beaches video.
Exactly how this deal was structured, and how much it's costing taxpayers, Floridians have no way of knowing. While Visit Florida received $76 million in this year's state budget, it says the Pitbull deal contains proprietary business information, which is exempt from public records requests. An eleven-page version released by Visit Florida is almost entirely blacked out.
"This is a situation where we are legally bound," Seccombe said. "I'd be happy to release the number. … In this case, we're just not able to. I think it's unfortunate because Pitbull's doing this for Florida. He gave us an extremely good deal, and thinks that this is a great partnership for Florida. The criticism is understandable. My hands are tied."
Seccombe said Visit Florida is tracking every possible metric to ensure its money isn't going to waste. Take social media. Since Sept. 2, the day the partnership was announced, Pitbull has used the #LoveFL hashtag 25 times on Twitter, where he has 22.2 million followers, and 12 times on Instagram (4.3 million followers). While that might not sound like much, it doesn't account for the tens of thousands of likes, faves and retweets those Florida plugs received.
Visit Florida tracks that engagement just like any other company in the business of celebrity endorsements. Based on data from a marketing analytics firm, "we're very confident that we're going to get $5 in media value for every $1 we spend," Seccombe said.
Part of that value is tied to the Sexy Beaches video, which dropped July 13. While Pitbull's scenes were filmed at Fontainebleau Miami Beach, the clip also featured shots of "sexy beaches!” and "hotels!” from around the state, including St. Petersburg's Don CeSar and Clearwater Beach's Sandpearl — all provided by Visit Florida. As of Tuesday, Sexy Beaches had 2.7 million views.
"We didn't write the song, but we were able to make sure that that product came out and promoted Florida vacations," Seccombe said. "This video's going to be around for a long time, and it's going to continue to build in value."
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In a recent interview with Variety, Pitbull talked about the value of his brand and the importance of finding a good partner.
"Throughout the years, I've seen a lot of people want to use the word 'partnership,' but then drop the ball from their side, like, just because a name is attached to it, it's going to do all their work for them," he said. "There's no magic trick, there's no silver bullet, there's no cutting corners when it comes to building businesses."
"It's not, 'Write a check and walk away and expect miracles,'" he said. "It's working hard to make sure you're in synch with messages."
Visit Florida's partnership with Pitbull will end after this tour, Seccombe said, but "we're having conversations about what it would look like going forward."
In the meantime, Pitbull's three Florida shows this weekend — Tampa, Fort Lauderdale and Hollywood — will all feature the #LoveFL hashtag, enticing out-of-state visitors to come back. He might even bark out a few extra Florida plugs to get his home state fans all riled up.
The man who's become a worldwide brand won't be working pro bono. But if state tourism does indeed increase, his touch might end up being priceless.
Contact Jay Cridlin at [email protected] or (727) 893-8336. Follow @JayCridlin.