Tom Eblen: Trio plans to promote Kentucky with Super Bowl ad

A Super Bowl ad could tout the state

Herald-Leader columnistSeptember 14, 2011 

Kent Carmichael, left, Griffin VanMeter and Whit Hiler are trying to raise $3.5 million online to air a Super Bowl ad.

TOM EBLEN | STAFF

It is an idea so crazy, it just might work.

Griffin VanMeter, Kent Carmichael and Whit Hiler are 30-something marketing guys. They also are native Kentuckians who are proud of their state and think everyone else should be proud of it, too.

A year ago, they had this idea: Let's produce a television commercial promoting the "brand" of Kentucky and get it on the Super Bowl telecast.

"We want to show how much character and influence has come out of Kentucky and is still coming out of Kentucky," VanMeter said. "It's a big story we're trying to tell, and we want to put it on the biggest stage possible. It would be the most talked-about Super Bowl commercial ever."

The trio began in April by creating a Facebook page called Kentucky for Kentucky. Since then, more than 1,950 fans have contributed to lists and photo galleries of great Kentucky people, places and products.

Then, on Thursday, they went public with their Super Bowl idea using the hot crowd-funding Web site Kickstarter.com. An Internet video promoting the effort has gone viral, and media attention has come from, among others, the big tech news site Mashable.com and Advertising Age magazine's Web site.

Their goal is to raise $3.5 million in 60 days. After five days, more than 200 backers have made online pledges of more than $41,000, in increments as small as $1. They have received two $10,000 pledges — "We can see who they are, so we know they're legit," said VanMeter, a partner in the Lexington marketing agency Bullhorn.

An effort like this would have been a lot harder before Kickstarter.com, which lets people pitch creative projects to a huge online audience. Backers pledge as little as $1 or as much as they want, but their credit card isn't charged unless the idea reaches its fund-raising goal by the specified deadline.

Backers will get prizes: bumper stickers, T-shirts, maybe even a cameo appearance in the commercial. But unless the $3.5 million goal is met by Nov. 7, nobody is on the hook.

"Once we get this groundswell of support, some of the big people will get behind it," VanMeter said. "Besides, this whole idea is so much bigger than a Super Bowl commercial."

So what is the idea, really?

"The short answer is that it's about Kentucky pride," he said.

"As brands go, Kentucky is an awesome brand," said Hiler, who works for Cornett Integrated Marketing Solutions in Lexington. "It's a lot cooler than Doritos. We've got years on them."

He has a point: Kentucky was America's first Western frontier and has produced the likes of Daniel Boone, Abraham Lincoln, Muhammad Ali and George Clooney. It is the namesake of two of the world's best-known brands — Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Kentucky Derby. Kentuckians have created everything from bourbon and bluegrass music to the traffic signal and the high five.

But, Carmichael noted, any Kentuckian who has lived elsewhere has heard the jokes about going shoeless and marrying your cousin.

Kentucky has more than its share of problems, including too much obesity and too little education.

"People need to believe in Kentucky, and that can help solve a lot of problems," VanMeter said.

"There's no agenda, no reason for anyone not to like this idea," said Carmichael, a Lexington native and a copywriter for Crispin Porter + Bogusky in Boulder, Colo. He said the three of them don't plan to make any money on this project and are not fronting for any company, political group or "official" anything.

If they raise the money in time to reserve a commercial spot on the Super Bowl telecast Feb. 5, what will they do?

"The least of our worries will be getting the commercial made," Hiler said.

With $3.5 million worth of public momentum, the three marketers said, they think Kentucky producers, directors, writers and actors would rush to help them make one awesome Kentucky commercial. Are you listening, George Clooney, Jerry Bruckheimer and Ashley Judd?

And if they don't make it to the Super Bowl? Well, they already have drawn a lot of positive attention to an outrageously creative idea coming out of Kentucky. And that's sort of the point.

Reach Tom Eblen at teblen@herald-leader.com or (859) 231-1415 or 1-800-950-6397, Ext. 1415. Read and comment on his blog, The Bluegrass & Beyond, at Kentucky.com.

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