Rhode Island’s $5 million tourism campaign went viral for all the wrong reasons — the ad agency that took the fall explains what happened

IndieWhip cofounders Chandler Quintin, Paul Kettelle, and Brian Bruzzi. IndieWhip

On Tuesday, March 29, Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo shared her state’s new tourism ad on her Twitter account.

The tweet kicked off a tourism campaign budgeted at $5 million — an ambitious sum for the country’s smallest state. 

By the next day, the ad had become a full-blown international sensation because two seconds of the two-minute clip showed a skateboarder in front of the renowned Harpa concert hall in Reykjavic, Iceland.

By the end of the week, the video had been widely lampooned by American, English, Australian, and Icelandic media as well as turned into an online meme. The state’s chief marketing officer, Betsy Wall, resigned, and Raimondo announced that the campaign was going to be relaunched with a new video, slogan, and website.

Business Insider spoke with the five-person, Providence-based ad agency IndieWhip responsible for the video. Though they take full ownership for their mistake, they believe that they have been cast as the scapegoat for a campaign that included plenty more mistakes than their own.

Here’s that ad, which IndieWhip estimates to have been viewed at least a quarter of a million times across multiple uploads (the offending scene is at the 10-second mark):

Help tell Rhode Island’s story by sharing our new brand video #weareRI https://t.co/alIIcZ2DIghttps://t.co/qh3YtF0q0s
— Gina Raimondo (@GinaRaimondo) March 29, 2016

The IndieWhip team was shocked when they saw their ad on the governor’s Twitter account, the company’s co-founders Chandler Quintin, Paul Kettelle and Brian Bruzzi told Business Insider. They knew the video contained a clip from Iceland, but they claim they never intended for that particular draft to go live.

According to Indiwhip, here’s how it went down:

Rhode Island commissioned New York-based advertising giant Havas Worldwide for the project, and in March, the agency contracted IndieWhip to put together a two-minute commercial from Havas’ building blocks of b-roll and a script. 

Harpa concert hall in Reykjavik
The Harpa concert hall in Reykjavic. Flickr/arripay

When the deadline to show the video at an event before the larger launch was cut short, the IndieWhip creative team decided to use footage of one of its own employees skating in Iceland as a placeholder for the “physical” activity they couldn’t find in the b-roll they were given, explained Quintin.

The clip was solely a placeholder for a first draft, which would show at Monday’s event but go no further.

When the governor put it on her Twitter page the next day, it didn’t take long for Rhode Islanders to notice the Iceland clip. The state called the IndieWhip team at 2:00 p.m., Quintin said, and he was shocked to find out that the governor had released it to the public.

IndieWhip sent a quick revision two hours later, but the governor did not delete her tweet or publish the new version. 

The press office for the Rhode Island Commerce Corporation didn’t respond to a request for comment. 

To critics, the botched video was just one more mistake in the expensive disaster that was the tourism campaign.

They said the “Cooler & Warmer” slogan that came out of the partnership with New York designer Milton Glaser (of “I ♥ NY” fame) was closer to a non-sequitur than an encapsulation of their state, and the state’s new website looked nice but contained glaring factual errors.

Rhode island
Critics didn’t mind Milton Glaser’s new logo for the campaign, but hated the odd slogan. Milton Glaser

That Friday, April 1, Raimondo announced that Rhode Island’s chief marketing officer Betsy Wall resigned, that $120,000 would be recouped — $100,000 from Havas and $20,000 from IndieWhip — and that the small ad agency was drafting a new version of the commercial for free.

Raimondo told reporters: “As I dug into it a little bit and realised just how poor of a job was done, I got pretty mad myself. These were sloppy, just unacceptable mistakes … It’s unacceptable how many mistakes were made in this rollout and we need to hold people accountable, because Rhode Islanders deserve better — taxpayers deserve better.”

That same day, IndieWhip tried some advertising judo in an attempt to make the most of the spotlight now on Rhode Island with an April Fools’ Day joke. Mocking accusations that they had subversively inserted the skating clip to create a viral video, and that they even faked the clip, the IndieWhip cofounders released a video proclaiming that they were “all in on Iceland” and showed a skater in front of a green screen.

Quintin said the response to that was largely positive.

And while they wish they had never made the mistake in the first place, the IndieWhip team firmly believes that the adage that “bad press is better is than no press” can be best utilised in the digital age. In their case, they’re grateful it handed the resulted in Rhode Island residents voicing their opinions about the tourism campaign, and in several filmmakers reaching out to Indiewhip to work with them.

“Had that clip not been in there, the surge of creativity from everyone else seeing this wouldn’t have happened,” Quintin said.

Raimondo is hoping for the same thing. Last week, she noted that she enjoyed the way many Rhode Islands voiced their opinions for the first time on the matter, and had some fun with a frustrating situation.

The state is moving forward with planning the campaign’s relaunch.

Here’s Indiewhip’s official statement, shared first with Business Insider:

IW Statement

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