BONITA SPRINGS, Fla. — During Dan Aho’s vacation to the Florida Gulf Coast, he slurped seawater, spirited off shells from an old lady and destroyed a sand castle in progress, often snug in the most horrifying of tourist tog — the dreaded red Speedo.
He would seem to be giving visitors to the Sunshine State a bad name, except that his goal is actually to bring more of them here. He is the star, after all, of the most ambitious and humorous effort yet to keep Florida’s tourism empire alive despite the oil spill in the northern Gulf of Mexico.
"I’m kind of bummed," said Aho, packing up after shooting his last television advertisement here, in which he refuses to leave the beaches of Lee County, Fla., for the plane home. "You get used to a place like this in 10 days."
In real life, Aho is a sweet and thoughtful gym administrator from Chicago. His skin tones are sugar white, and he has a Northerner’s squint in the sun.
But as a character trying to prove that Florida’s southwest coast is "Still Pristine," as the advertising campaign is called, Aho is goofy, overeager and a wee bit annoying.
Aho is the progeny of Gary Mueller, creative director with BVK, a Milwaukee advertising agency that sells itself with tag lines like "doing the impossible is fun."
When Mueller pitched the campaign to the Lee County Visitor and Convention Bureau, Mueller was picturing more Steve Irwin than Steve Carell for the advertisements. But when Aho, an improv actor by night, started faking calls via "shell phone" during the casting, Mueller changed his concept.
It was the perfect fit for an advertising campaign designed for madcap speed. There were a mere 10 days from concept development to production on location on June 21, with a video-style run-and-gun operation. For nine days, the spots were shot at daybreak, then edited and uploaded before most tourists had dug out their sunscreen. Most of the rest of the days (and nights) were spent scouting the next day’s beach, corralling talent and props and roughing out a script.
On the most chaotic day, the planned island location was underwater at shoot time. They scrambled by boat to a nearby island, only to find the camera lens fogged from humidity.
"We had 15 minutes to be rolling; the light was starting to come up," Mueller said. "We ended up shooting it on a flip cam."
The advertisements should probably be rebranded the Aho campaign. The character has garnered nearly the buzz — and business — that Thomas Edison did when he brought electricity to Fort Myers.
"We’ve seen an increase of 16 percent in traffic to the website in the first week of the campaign," said Tamara Pigott, executive director of the Lee County visitors bureau. "And 32 percent up from the same time last month."
While hotel occupancy and reservation rates will not be on a spread sheet for weeks, word has been trickling in that the campaign was producing a bump. "A gentleman stopped by our information booth at the airport and said he saw the ad and bought the trip," Pigott said.
Another man said he saw the spot with Aho cavorting on the untainted beach with a trophy-mounted tarpon and loved it so much he forwarded it to friends in Washington in an attempt to plan a fishing trip.
The $500,000 campaign, including $380,000 in media buys, was paid for with emergency funds from the visitors bureau. Commercials have run on "World News with Diane Sawyer" on ABC, on the Weather Channel and in local markets in Florida.
Mueller said most advertisements were from "everybody’s tourism playbook, with old, beautiful footage and a voiceover saying, ‘We are open."’
He said consumers were tuning out that message over news media reports of oil and tar. "You talk to your friends in the rest of the country," he said, and "to them, all of Florida is one place. Here, we aren’t competing with other destinations but competing with the evening news."
The visitors bureau has received $500,000 from the state, part of BP’s $25 million grant to Florida for tourism marketing. It will use the money to re-edit the Aho campaign for future advertisements and possibly bring him back (fans can vote for his return at www.fortmyers-sanibel.com).
At dawn on his last morning here, Aho, 31, had more energy than a busload of preschoolers after a visit to the local chocolatier Norman Love Confections.
In the previous commercials, local residents had been recruited, as well as the weatherman Willard Scott. A Fort Myers body builder and personal trainer, AJ Sims, 21, appeared comparing biceps with Aho; a well-known shell collector, Ethel Sinow, 80, was recruited to chase Aho down the beach after he took a valuable shell and darted away.
But this last shoot would be just Aho and the crew that brought him.
It was clear neither Aho nor his comedic persona were ready to leave. With the heat of the day just starting to climb, Aho churned down the sand, his voice just barely audible in the wind. "You can’t make me go," he said. "You’re not my Dad." The Speedo had not been seen all week; he had almost gone native.