Bud Light Faces Backlash Over Town Takeover Ad Stunt

Expensive Campaign is in Jeopardy After Some Residents of Colorado Town Complain

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Bud Light says it is "up for whatever," but Crested Butte, Colo., might not be.

Some residents in the small mountain community are rebelling against secretive plans by Anheuser-Busch Inbev to take over their town for a giant party Sept. 5-7. The brewer hopes the stunt will culminate a summer-long national ad campaign and consumer contest.

Bud Light touted the town as "Whatever USA" in ads and sought to keep its identity secret all summer as part of its ongoing "Perfect Beer for Whatever Happens" campaign. More than 100,000 people applied to be flown to the unnamed town for the weekend and 1,000 were selected to participate.

But the event -- which was likely being positioned as a springboard for more ads this fall -- is now in jeopardy because some residents are complaining that the Crested Butte town council and the brewer kept the plans secret.

The council held a lengthy public hearing on the event this week and is expected to hold a vote Thursday evening for the special event application. If the permit is voted down, it will be a significant blow to the brewer, which according to town documents plans to use footage from the event for a national ad campaign.

A-B InBev has a backup plan, according to a spokesman, who declined to detail those plans.

Locals began complaining after noticing preparations for the event taking place. That included erecting branded fencing and plenty of Bud Light-shaded blue, the Denver Post reported. "Just today I took my son to the skate park and we could not get water or use the bathroom facilities because they were blocked off," Crested Butte resident Sarah Steffens wrote in an e-mail on Tuesday cited by the Post, which has been reporting on the complications all week.

"The town government is not elected to turn the town into a weekend beer hall, using public resources and public property," former U.S. Senator Tim Wirth wrote in a letter to the town council, according to the Post. "Nor is it elected to carry on secret, behind-the-scenes negotiations, waiting until commitments are a fait accompli before informing town residents."

The Post quoted one person hired by the town to help plan the event as saying that "the secrecy behind the event is because we don't want 35,000 people here. It's a matter of safety and security for us."

Even some outsiders are upset, including Dan and Laura Schnelker, a couple from North Carolina, who say they planned to spend Sept. 1-8 in Crested Butte for their 30th wedding anniversary. "We were drawn to Crested Butte for its beauty," Mr. Schnelker said in an email to Crested Butte Mayor Aaron Huckstep that was made public by the town. But "I just became aware of a 'secret' ad campaign that is being planned to turn Crested Butte blue and essentially destroy its beauty during our trip," he continued. "My wife and I hope that the city government reconsider this plan and not 'sell out' for the sake of a beer advertisement."

"We respect and are sensitive to the concerns expressed by some citizens of Crested Butte in Tuesday's town forum, and we are working to address them," David Daniels, director of marketing for Bud Light said in a statement. "We've spent several months planning and preparing with the town and local vendors, and appreciate the support they have shown for an event that will have substantial long-term benefits for area residents and businesses. It's our hope that the Crested Butte Town Council will permit Bud Light to host Whatever, USA activities in their town as planned."

A-B InBev is handling all expenses, including "financing of activities for minors," and has also pledged a $250,000 donation to the town, according to town documents. Also, the brewer projects that the local economic impact of the event will be "well over $2 million dollars," including "more than 2,800 hotels room nights [and] nearly $1 million dollars in food and beverage expenses," according to a spokesman.

There are plenty of supporters, to be sure. The director of the Crested Butte Chamber of Commerce was quoted in the Denver Post as saying a chamber survey found that 90% of residents were in favor of the event.

But the debate appears to be splitting the town in half. Sarah Hartigan, who identified herself as a business owner in support of the event, stated in an email to town officials that "this is so ridiculous and sad that this really neat thing to come to town has torn this town apart." She added that "the excitement has been taken away. I wouldn't blame the event for going somewhere else [where] they feel welcome, and they probably will."

The brewer used Chicago-based experiential agency Mosaic to help plan the event, while related national TV ads and other creative elements are by BBDO, which handles the Bud Light account from New York and Chicago.

The campaign continues Bud Light's new emphasis on combining experiential elements with traditional and digital advertising. The effort began earlier this year with ads debuting during the Super Bowl featuring hidden-camera style footage of a man who encountered celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger during a rollicking night out on the town.

But with the summer effort, the brewer is getting a lesson in the difficulty of pulling off an event that relies on local government approval. While marketers typically try to keep campaign details secret, Bud Light's plans have been exposed in documents posted on the Crested Butte municipal web site, including a lengthy packet of documents that was made public on the eve of Thursday's vote.

The documents go into excruciating detail about what is coming: The 1,000 contest winners will be welcomed with a ceremony and a parade on Sept. 5 along the town's Elk Avenue and later proceed to a "closed party" at Crested Butte's Big Mine arena. The next day, activities will occur on and around Elk Avenue, including street performers and musical acts. Town documents point out that the music acts will "not be 'A-level,' but instead would consist of a mix of local musicians, regionally known musicians and up-and-coming acts known on Youtube but not yet mainstream."

The document notes that the event will also include "low-impact activities," such as "games, low-key races and curiosities" that would mostly be open to the public.

The town's staff has generally recommended that the council approve the special event application, but has outlined both positive and negative aspects of being featured in a national ad campaign. On the plus side, "the campaign reaches a young demographic potentially consistent with a potential market for the ski area," according to documents. Negatives include "the fact the advertising campaign is centered around selling alcohol," and "the fact that the brand is a large corporate brand rather than a craft beer brand."

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