In the Kentucky Fun Mall in north Lexington, Cocaine Bear has become a centerpiece and a national advertising coup.
Cocaine Bear, aka Pablo Eskobear after drug lord Pablo Escobar, is a reminder of the “Bluegrass Conspiracy” years in Kentucky during the 1970s and ’80s. It was an era detailed in a 1989 book by Sally Denton centered on Drew Thornton, a former Lexington narcotics officer, who fell to his death from an airplane when his parachute failed to open. Thornton landed in a gravel driveway in Knoxville. He was wearing a bulletproof vest and Gucci shoes, and he was carrying $15 million worth of cocaine.
Thornton had earlier ditched a cache of cocaine over North Georgia, where it was found by a hungry bear. The bear gorged itself on what it supposed was food, and it died of a massive overdose.
The bear was autopsied and taxidermied, and it went on an epic national journey before it was rediscovered by the mirthful fellows who run Kentucky for Kentucky in Lexington.
Digital Access For Only $0.99
For the most comprehensive local coverage, subscribe today.
Cocaine Bear, which at one point in its long strange journey had been claimed by country singer Waylon Jennings, was last owned by a woman in Reno, Nevada. It had belonged to her late husband, and she just wanted it gone.
Kentucky for Kentucky was happy to oblige, and now Cocaine Bear sits in his furry glory enjoying a drug-free afterlife at the Kentucky Fun Mall, Kentucky for Kentucky’s retail outlet at 720 Bryan Avenue. He’s wearing a Kentucky hat, of course.
On Thursday, he drew visitors who included two women who stopped to pay homage to Cocaine Bear before heading up to the Ark park — a Kentucky kitsch tour, they said. A Frankfort man stopped by for a T-shirt and paused to admire Cocaine Bear.
RVs full of tourists come to see Cocaine Bear because it’s associated with a period of excess and mystery in Kentucky in which Thornton played a part, according to Kentucky for Kentucky proprietors Griffin VanMeter and Whit Hiler.
When they opened the Kentucky Fun Mall, which has been in the works and in its soft-opening stage for months, VanMeter and Hiler found themselves with 12,000 square feet devoted to the theme that Kentucky is the be-all. They had a pretty nonexistent budget to advertise it as a destination retail experience.
How would they get word out about the Kentucky socks, shirts, posters, coozies and fried-chicken candles? Yes, they were advertising online and shipping from the mall, but how could they spur walk-in traffic?
So VanMeter and Hiler starred with Cocaine Bear in a 30-second commercial filmed by friend Ian Friley of Kong Productions. In it, VanMeter is shirtless and wearing a pair of size 7X men’s white underwear with a Kentucky for Kentucky screen print on them. The undies are pulled up over his abdomen. Hiler is wearing a fetching hat made of two KFC buckets and some raffia stuffing, and tied with a black bow.
What could go wrong with such a setup?
As it turned out, very little.
The ad includes numerous bleeps that were eventually covered with the sound of a chicken clucking (get it?). It is so outrageous and passes so quickly that you might not notice the collection of saws that runs behind the words “kids’ gear” that is supposedly for sale at the mall. (It’s irony, y’all.)
Hiler and VanMeter shopped the ad to local TV stations. They were turned down by three of the four local stations but were allowed on late night at WLEX-TV.
Then, the commercial did something that the big and rich ad companies can only dream of: It got national attention. AdWeek’s “AdFreak: The Best and Worst of Advertising, Branding and Design,” came calling.
The headline was “Two Men, and One Cocaine Bear, Just Made Kentucky’s Strangest Local Ad Ever.” It became the top trending story on the AdWeek site.
The week got even better for the Kentucky for Kentucky businessmen when a photo went viral of comedian Bill Murray wearing their “George Clooney is a Beautiful Man” T-shirt while watching fireworks with Kentucky native Clooney and his wife, Amal, in Lake Como, Italy.
The two say they are likely to produce additional ads, but VanMeter said that the ad works in part “because Whit and I are so bad in front of the camera.” That requires frequent editing cuts and gives the ad its frenetic appeal.
Cocaine Bear shirts and other gear, including patches for hats, are planned to be available within the next two weeks.
Said VanMeter: “We have this idea that you can create a retail environment that’s like Cracker Barrel on crack. ... Sometimes our opening statement is, can we get in trouble for this? And if the answer is yes, we do it.”