This past weekend the corporate conquest of cool entered a new phase: expropriation.
AB InBev, a $43 billion multinational conglomerate that brews one in four beers sold around the world, executed an agreement with the archetypal ski town of Crested Butte, Colorado (population 1,500; annual general fund budget $3.2 million). It’s the kind of town that champions localism, authenticity, and the outdoorsy virtues. Chain stores, traffic lights, and other modern blemishes have been banished.
The deal therefore was controversial. It provided for the temporary erasure of the municipality as well as the suspension of its citizens’ First Amendment rights. In place of the town, AB InBev constructed a Potemkin village called “Whatever, USA,” to promote its popular pseudo-lager, Bud Light.
In place of the people who lived in Crested Butte, the company flew in more than 1,000 demographically and aesthetically desirable alcoholics-in-training, selected from a purported 150,000 applicants who auditioned on YouTube and in bars around the country. The official questionnaire sought to discern whether aspiring brand ambassadors were truly “up for whatever” by asking them to reveal their secret talents (such as reciting the alphabet backwards), their spirit animals, and their ideal jobs. (Check out this guy: “If I could be whatever, I’d be my own boss and make my own CEO and have my own weed company, you know what I’m saying? Weed is the way to go!”) It also helped to mention the product.
In return, the Crested Butte city council was to receive $250,000—or 0.004 percent of AB InBev’s annual $6 billion marketing budget. (The amount was later doubled to a princely $500,000 when locals balked.)
Organizers promised the local newspaper that their intention was “to keep it classy.” Meanwhile, their crews were replacing storefront signs with their own gaudy banners, painting the streets a garish Bud Light blue, installing both a monumental blue gorilla downtown and a blue cowboy boot reported to be several stories tall near the mayor’s office.
They imported live ponies, goats and llamas; bungee rides; giant inflatable human hamster wheels; benches decorated like lime wedges; monster trucks; hot-pink limousines; fluorescent leis; jackets festooned with flashing LEDs; a neon boombox the size of a house; inflatable giraffes; unicorn masks; fire-breathers, models, and a pair of creepily solicitous “porn stars” (one of whom later deleted his tweets asking where to find the evening’s orgy—maybe they just showed up).
All this forcible eccentricity was set to the blare of market-tested, millennial-friendly electronic dance music, as complimentary alcoholic beverages were served at 8,900 feet—an elevation sufficient to induce hypoxia, a condition that exaggerates the effects of intoxication in those unaccustomed to the altitude.
Bemused locals noticed that en route “winners” were already pre-gaming on charter flights to the tiny Gunnison-Crested Butte Regional Airport. After arrival, the partiers received tickets printed with the entreaty to “ENJOY RESPONSBILY [sic].”
Soon enough the imported revelers were “shit hammered,” passing out in hot springs and vomiting in elevators. It was about as classy an operation as one might expect from the company that once based an advertising campaign on the suggestion of bestiality. For locals, the occupation seemed akin to what might happen if the Israel Defense Forces transferred security duties to the organizers of Coachella.
The town’s main drag, Elk Avenue, and many other areas, were fenced off. Access was restricted to those wearing RFID-enabled wristbands that became invalid if removed. Hired guards were granted the power to “screen all persons…with magnetometers, security wands and/or other screening devices.” (The Crested Butte Marshal’s Department “mob scenario” contingency plan amounted to canceling the party and relying upon AB InBev to shuttle everyone back to their hotel rooms [PDF]. Ultimately, and incredibly, no arrests were made.) Anyone under the legal drinking age who worked at the restaurants and galleries in the “Whatever” zone was required to present documentary evidence of employment.
Practically speaking, these measures meant that some Crested Butte residents were excluded from their homes, workplaces and favorite watering holes for two days. Inconvenience reigned alongside confusion. The town’s chamber of commerce, charged with distributing wristbands to residents, quickly ran out of them. According to a Facebook group set up by disgruntled locals, many people who needed a wristband were unable to claim them at the designated place and time on account of their work schedules. An after-school program was displaced from its venue, and local businesses found their entrances blocked by construction debris. Resentment spread.
Perhaps the greatest source of aggravation was the secrecy surrounding the event. Arrangements were made out of public view and over a period of months between the town’s elected leaders and AB InBev’s hired agents, including an attorney from St. Louis and some slick Chicago marketeers, according to the shell company’s legal filings. Residents learned the full terms at a public hearing only eleven days before the party started on September 5.
Two representatives from Mosaic, the “experiential” marketing agency hired by AB InBev, attended that hearing, according to the meeting’s minutes. It speaks to the civility and restraint of small-town Coloradans, or the mellowing effects of legal marijuana, that the marketers were not dragged from town at the end of a rope by a horse at full gallop. Mosaic’s Sean Byrne made a show of contrition at the hearing, saying that “if he had to do it all over again, he would approach it differently.” Yet he also insultingly framed the looming debauch as “a significant donation to the city” and “implored people to look at the bigger economic picture.”
Public comments at the hearing, which skewed against the Bud Light invasion, showed that residents needed no help grasping that bigger picture. They railed against the subversion of the democratic process, the likely environmental damage, the “corporate imperialism,” and the use of “public property for private gain.”
One former resident told Mountain Town News:
“I wouldn’t travel a block, let alone 30 miles, for a free Bud Light. But I’m still bothered by…what it says about where our world is going. Going to the point: why do corporations have all the money in America, if not the world, while towns, cities, counties, states are starved? Why does a beer corporation have millions to blow on this kind of stupid foolishness, while true communities —wherever—cannot afford to house the people they need to remain a community?”
Subsequent to the backlash, AB InBev doubled its offer to $500,000. Few townspeople seem to have been impressed, as they could witness the extravagant sums the company was devoting to stagecraft, chartered aircraft, actors, performers, crew. In public comments, one resident suggested $10 million would have been a more appropriate compensation. (AB InBev has not revealed its total budget for the campaign.) Others noted that local Crested Butte breweries, producers of various award-winning craft beers, were more worthy of celebration than watery, flavorless Bud Light, once memorably described as “a combination of frog urine and carbonation.”
But the deal was done. The Crested Butte town council was unanimous in its approval. Once the civic-engagement charade was behind it, Mosaic dropped all pretense. “We’re just taking over a town. No big deal,” the agency sarcastically boasted on its Twitter account.
The council, for its part, was forced to counter accusations of corruption and incompetence. The editor of the Crested Butte News was reported to have said that “if the council elections were held tomorrow, nobody would be reelected.”
Certainly, many aspects of the deal were shady, or at least slapdash. For instance, contract documents reveal that the town entered into a reimbursement agreement with the brewer’s shell company, Western Colorado Events, LLC, on July 7. However, the LLC wasn’t actually registered with the Colorado Secretary of State until August 27, two days after the first public hearing. The rushed timing calls into question the validity of the contract, or at least the competency of the organizers.
The ineptitude carried on until Sunday afternoon when the last hungover bros and brodettes had been ferried to the airport. According to press reports, the chartered flights were delayed after security foiled some hungover smugglers’ attempt to fly home with nuggets of legal Colorado weed.
By many (cough, choke) “metrics” the campaign was a success. It generated an abundance of “earned media,” such as this very article. CNN sent a shamefully enthusiastic reporter to cover the “Whatever” weekend, and one local newsie gushed, “Best assignment EVER.”
(The social media results, however, were mixed. Some locals spoiled the party atmosphere by using the official corporate hashtag to complain about their exclusion, writing things like, “even though we grew up here we can’t get in. I love bud light, but c’mon.” The hired models also proved unreliable, with one apologizing to her followers for the excessive party posts and admitting, “I’m getting paid to be #upforwhatever #whateverusa #budlight.”)
The traditional television ad campaign preceding the event won a top industry award at Cannes. Similarly, the brazen philistinism of Mosaic’s experiential marketing has been hailed the “unbeatable” way of the future. The agency’s tagline, “People as Media™,” might’ve been lifted straight from Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From The Goon Squad. In a dystopian section at the end of Egan’s tale, jaded near-future urbanites shill vapid corporate entertainment to their social media networks in return for pitiful compensation. Or, in Mosaic’s own clumsy phrasing:
Trained Ambassadors communicate key messages about your brand, ultimately delivering an impression. So how are people a more effective medium? They offer deeper engagement, giving the consumer a ‘reason to believe’ through a more immersive experience.
Thus did the world’s largest purveyor of wretched factory beer product give birth to the most nauseating and wasteful multi-platform marketing experiment in recent memory. The takeover of Crested Butte was so much worse than that, though. It will be remembered as one stupid weekend when a sinister form of privatized eminent domain fused with the dehumanizing force of individual branding. And it was a signal to Americans that there is no more sanctuary in the great outdoors. Every town, no matter how small or remote, can become a company town without warning or recourse. Walden Pond got hashtagged.