Anheuser-Busch flew 1,000 young people to Crested Butte, Colorado, over the weekend as part of the Bud Light “Up for Whatever” ad campaign. In exchange for half a million dollars, officials agreed to let the beer giant transform the small town into a living beer commercial with painted blue streets, hot tubs, concert lights, and free beer. Unsurprisingly, a lot of bad press ensued, most of it focusing on residents’ ire regarding the secretive nature of the deal and the bad precedent it sets. Missing has been a discussion of its effect on our young people. As someone who works with adolescents fighting addiction, I am deeply concerned that the town’s decision—and the ad campaign itself—sends a loud and clear message that a good time means “drinking time.”
This is a dangerous message to send, especially given the troubling statistics surrounding drinking by college students—a key demographic this ad campaign hopes to reach. More than 80 percent of college students drink alcohol, and about half of them binge drink; almost two million of them meet the diagnostic criteria for substance abuse and dependence. The consequences of all this alcohol consumption are disturbing: Close to 2,000 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related injuries, and alcohol is a factor in two out of three student suicides. Binge drinking, in particular, leads to increased drunk driving, violence, and unsafe sexual activity. With free beer being doled out all weekend, is there any doubt that binge drinking—defined as five drinks in a sitting for young men, four for young women—was likely to happen in Crested Butte?
We as parents, government officials, educators, and a society, need to be educating our young people about the risks inherent in college-age drinking and working to prevent it—not celebrating it. How can community leaders credibly tell kids to stay away from alcohol after sanctioning a weekend that credits it as the source of a good time? As an outsider, I wonder how vigorously this issue was debated in the town meeting ahead of the event.
I also can’t help but wonder about the young people who were selected to appear in the ads. Participants were chosen based on videos they made and submitted to Anheuser-Busch. The directive? To show that they were “up for whatever.” These young people were literally rewarded for using alcohol to fuel their fun and to increase their willingness to do risky, over-the-top things—in other words, to be “up for whatever.” And if the video directive and the slogan didn’t already make clear what they were supposed to do once they arrived in Crested Butte, the free-flowing beer certainly did. The participants seem to have taken the message to heart, as media outlets noted the onslaught of drunk or hungover young people at the airport the following morning, some of them carrying marijuana (legal in Colorado).
Of course, to fully address the impact on the millions of young viewers these ads will eventually reach would take an entire book.
I say all this with complete understanding of how difficult it would be for a town facing hard financial times to say no to half a million dollars in exchange for a mere three days of inconvenience. I was moved by the stories of Crested Butte residents who work two or three jobs during the slow season to make ends meet, and $500,000 is a lot of money. I hear what the mayor is saying when he stated that, “It is not every day that you have a company that comes in and says: ‘We want to donate half a million to your community. We want to hire your locals. We want to work with your bars and restaurants.’” But making the difficult decision to say no to such an alluring offer would have been a lesson in itself. Teaching kids to go for the easy fix when times get tough—even when doing so goes against deeply held values—can only backfire in the long run.
Senior Director, Phoenix House San Diego