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At long last, Drunktown Guy speaks
Raleigh is finally allowing drinking on the streets downtown. Seven years ago, an infamous political ad warned us of this. The extremely memeable guy in that ad has never been interviewed. Until now.
Every city needs a superhero. Metropolis has Superman. Gotham City has Batman. St. Canard has Darkwing Duck. And Raleigh? Raleigh has Drunktown Guy.
Kids, to explain what’s going on in this picture, I have to tell you about the way things used to be. Back in our day, when you bought a beer, a glass of wine, or a cocktail in North Carolina, you had to drink it in the place where you bought it. Last week, the city of Raleigh changed that. Thanks to a new state law, it became the latest city to create a social district, meaning in certain areas downtown, at a certain time, you can buy a drink in one place, and walk around with it in public. Right there on the sidewalk! Finally, you can pretend like you’re strolling through a ever-so-slightly more uptight New Orleans.
If this plan feels familiar to you, know this: It did not come to you in a dream. It came to you in a meme. That meme? Drunktown.
Perhaps you do not live in Raleigh. Or perhaps you do, but did not live there seven years ago. Or perhaps you did, but had better things to do. That’s okay! I’m here to get you caught up on a minor political kerfuffle that turned into a niche local meme that birthed an insidery nickname for our fine capital city. You may have once laughed at Drunktown. DRUNKTOWN WAS A PROPHECY.
So come close, friends. I will tell you the tale of how Raleigh became Drunktown. To fully understand, you will need to hear the story of Drunktown Guy, a man whose face was connected to the campaign. A man who has never given an interview—until now. Above all else, he wants you to know one thing: The Drunktown ad was kinda dumb.
A short history of Drunktown
In September 2015, a full-page ad appeared in the Raleigh News & Observer that looked as if it had been made in a free version of Canva. “It’s 2 am in downtown Raleigh,” it said. “Do we really want downtown Raleigh to become DrunkTown?” It came out during the height of a city council race, and it claimed that several council members were in the pocket of downtown bar and club owners. The ad claimed that those council members would make the local liquor laws more liberal, henceforth turning downtown into Drunktown. “The residents who live downtown didn’t sign up to live in a college dorm,” it read.
The ad forced Raleigh to ask itself a tough question: What the hell is this ad?
Specifically, the ad got one guy’s name wrong (It’s Matt Tomasulo, not Mike). In general, though, it just seemed to be a hot mess. The guy behind it was Dean Debnam, who most notably runs Public Policy Polling. In statements to the media, he explained himself, but wasn’t exactly on the same page with the guy he was backing in the council race:
In a statement, Citizens for Good Government chair Dean Debnam said that people want a bigger vision for Raleigh, “one that is looking out for our neighborhoods, planning for Raleigh’s growth, and making sure we have a great quality of life.”
Debnam is a campaign supporter of another Raleigh Council member, Russ Stephenson.
On Twitter, Stephenson denounced the “Drunk Town” ad.
The ad’s actual effectiveness is up for debate. But that’s not the point. The point is that people clowned on the ad. Hard. They used #drunktown as a hashtag of endearment. Drunktown t-shirts appeared. And they immediately started photoshopping the guy in the photo, who’s leaning up against a pole and ostensibly about to barf, into many different situations.
Who is Drunktown Guy?
One original theory was that Drunktown Guy came from a stock photo (Fun fact: “Drunk guy stock photo” brings up 10.9 million hits on Google). But that theory was quickly disproven. Internet detectives figured out that the picture was taken in northwest Raleigh (not downtown), and then started making pilgrimages there.
So if the picture’s location was local, it stood to reason that the guy in it was local too. Brad Crone of Campaign Connections, the firm behind the ad, said back then that the guy was an NC State student who’d worked for him. But that was it. The true identity of Drunktown Guy remained a mystery. Until now.
Drunktown Guy wasn’t hiding, but then again, not many people were actually looking for him. A reporter from the News & Observer reached out via Facebook Messenger shortly after it happened and asked for an interview. But Drunktown Guy didn’t discover the message until a year later (it had landed in Facebook’s hard-to-find “message requests” folder), and by that time the reporter had left the paper. “I was happy to do [an interview],” he says, “but nobody else has reached out about it.”
I was able to track him down after I’d seen a name online, and then had a mutual friend introduce us. For the purposes of this story, he’d prefer to remain anonymous (he’ll explain in a second), but was happy to talk about the photo shoot, the ad, and everything that came afterward. What follows has been edited for brevity and clarity.
Rabbit Hole: How do you want to be identified here?
Mike (Drunktown Guy): I’m an NC State alumni named Mike who doesn't want his full name printed for professional reasons.
Rabbit Hole: How did you come to be at Campaign Connections when you were at NC State?
Mike: I just applied through the poli-sci department. They would put up listings of jobs and internships, so I just shot out my resume and I actually got the job during the interview. My former employer would regularly hire interns from NC State. So I started as an intern and then I kind of continued as an associate consultant for the remainder of that election year in 2014.
Rabbit Hole: So what kind of work were you typically doing in this internship?
Mike: You start off just kind of doing smaller tasks that aren't too difficult. Running numbers. Analysis after a while. I've always been pretty good at math. After a while, I kind of became one of the go-to statistics guys at the firm.
Rabbit Hole: So when did you get this request to be a part of this campaign?
Mike: In 2015, a few months after I had left the consulting firm. So there was this guy Nathan, who worked with us and did some photography. Long story short, Nathan was really just looking for anybody that he might have known, you know, to pretend to be a young drunk college guy.
He hit me up and asked if I would do it. It was a few hundred bucks, I think, for like an hour's worth of work. It was just easy money. And I thought to myself, sure, why not? It was helping out an associate. I wasn't overly concerned about it because it didn't seem like it would be something that would have as much reach as it eventually did.
He didn't give me the full details of everything that it would imply. He said it would go out in some kind of ad. Like, obviously, it was something about drinking. I wasn't aware it would become what it did, but at the end of the day, it was more of a humorous anecdote. It didn't traumatize me or demolish my life.
Rabbit Hole: So just to back up. Basically somebody who worked for the firm was like, hey, we just need somebody that would be like a placeholder for this campaign. We know you used to work here and do you mind doing it?
Mike: Yeah. I was 22 at the time. It was my senior year of undergrad. I was here for beer money, ironically enough.
Rabbit Hole: What do you remember about going out to shoot this?
Mike: It was in front of the old offices of the consulting firm (on Edwards Mill Road in Raleigh) and it wasn't that late. It was like 8:00, sometime in the spring. It was pretty easy. Just pretend to stumble around drunk. What's not really visible is that he had brought a can of, like, cream of mushroom soup or clam chowder or something that you get in Kroger. We opened that and I put some of that in my mouth and I vomited it. I'm not an actor. I wasn't able to like, make it just explode out of my mouth. We cleaned up afterwards around the base of that lamp post there.
Rabbit Hole: How much of a gap was there between that that shoot in early 2015, and then actually seeing the campaign start to go out?
Mike: Months. I didn't see it until it had kind of started already blowing up into a bit of a meme. They didn't send me a text or anything like that. If I had known that the ad was going to look like that, then I might have said, Yeah, now here's your money back. Go find some other schmuck. Right? It's not something that I personally agreed with, but at the end of the day, you know, it is what it is. I wasn't devastated. I was a little worried at first and somebody would find my name, but after a while things kind of died down and it wasn't the end of the world. My family would joke around with me about it. My dad was obsessed with all the memes. I think his favorite one was that picture during the winter where that car is on fire. He wanted to get that one printed out.
I was literally just a model for them. I wasn't involved in any other aspect of that campaign. I'd be much more embarrassed about if I were involved in the actual atrocious writing and the marketing behind it.
I had actually gone out on Halloween as Drunktown Guy that year to make a joke out of it. And a couple of the bartenders that I talked to were like, Oh yeah, we hate that. I said, Yeah, I hate it too. I got a few drinks out of it.
Rabbit Hole: You went as Drunktown Guy for Halloween? Did anybody get it?
Mike: Only a couple of times. It was such a big meme in the politically conscious circles of Raleigh and North Carolina, and within the service industry downtown. You'd be shocked by how many people had no idea about the meme and didn't care or didn't recognize it. I'm like, Oh, did you see the Drunktown Guy? And maybe like only 40% of them would say yeah, and I'd be like, That's me. The majority of them were like: I don't know what you're talking about.
Rabbit Hole: Were you worried about the reaction?
Mike: There was definitely a little bit of concern. I was no longer in political consulting for a while. I actually moved out of the country for a while to do some work. Completely unrelated. It's not that I had to leave the country to escape this.
But because my name wasn't printed anywhere at the time, I didn't get bombarded with a bunch of people trying to talk to me, or hitting me up on Twitter or Facebook, or screaming “Drunktown Guy!” I've met enough people who recognized that it was me. I'm pretty good at laughing it off. It's not a big deal. And I’d say, like, Oh yeah, I took that money and I went and got drunk downtown (laughs)
Rabbit Hole: Does anybody recognize you (as Drunktown Guy) now?
Mike: Oh, not anymore. I look quite different from that today. I've aged a good bit. I know some people who didn't recognize it was me until I told them.
Rabbit Hole: Have you seen anything about this new social district? What's your opinion on all of this that's happening at the moment?
Mike: I'm a big advocate for it. I think it's great. It livens up downtown. I haven't seen any connection in terms of Drunktown Guy to that. Drunktown Guy is something that I haven't had anybody even try to talk to me about in at least the last two or three years.
Rabbit Hole: What do you want people to know about you?
Mike: That I can hold my alcohol (laughs). I was a college student making a quick buck. And that I never supported the campaign. I'm just like a regular old guy. There's no hidden story.
I would like to let people know that I like the memes. Drunktown Guy? I’m rooting for him quietly.