Two Men, and One Cocaine Bear, Just Made Kentucky’s Strangest Local Ad Ever

Kentucky Fun Mall spot barges its way into broadcast

Cocaine Bear wants you to visit the Kentucky for Kentucky Fun Mall. Lumber on down, y'all!

Or at the very least, check out the 175-pound stuffed creature (aka, Pablo EscoBear)—which perished 31 years ago after ingesting 40 kilos of cocaine that fell from a plane in a botched smuggling operation—in the goofy TV commercial below.

A masterpiece (fiasco?) of low-budget, shouty self-awareness, the ad—and the Lexington, Ky., mall itself—sprang from the Southern-fried (and frequently bourbon-soaked) brain of ad exec/entrepreneur Whit Hiler and his associates, probably best known for their "beardvertising" venture and "Kentucky Kicks Ass" tourism ads from a few years back.

This latest spot stars Hiler and Griffin VanMeter, partners in Kentucky for Kentucky, a cheeky but very real venture dedicated to "engaging and informing the world by promoting Kentucky people, places and products." Its 12,000-square-foot Fun Mall stocks a wide selection of merchandise that both celebrates and sends up the Bluegrass State, such as socks (some show humping horses!), T-shirts (some with George Clooney's face!) and bourbon glasses (some emblazoned with the logo of the "USA Bourbon Drinking Team").

"The ad was inspired by the old '90s buy-here-pay-here used car lot ads, but a little stranger," Hiler tells AdFreak. "We thought that style would stand out and be very fitting for local television. Plus, it's really fun. It was also easy to shoot and inexpensive to produce."

Three broadcast outlets drawled "naw" to airing the ad, Hiler says, objecting to the word "ass" and the reference to the maul mall mascot that tragically OD'd. Ultimately, the spot found a home for the next few weeks on WLEX-TV, an NBC affiliate, where it's running during The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon and Saturday Night Live.

"The commercial was kind of an experiment," says Hiler. "We do most of our advertising online and really just wanted to air something ridiculous on television. We wanted to make an ad that was so absurd it would make most of the local television stations uncomfortable—and it did."

Looking ahead, Hiler is planning a line of products based on Cocaine Bear, which has become a regional tourist attraction in its own right. "Seriously, we've had RV's with families swing by to get their photo taken with Cocaine Bear," he says.

Stickers, hats, patches and shirts are in the works, along with, "mini-Cocaine Bear teddy bears," says Hiler. "I think those would be great for the kiddos."

Just don't use them for stashing your blow. The cops are on to that trick.


Videographer: Ian Friley, Kong Productions 

Sound: James Friley

Graphics: Erick Moore

Creative Directors: Whit Hiler, Griffin VanMeter

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@DaveGian David Gianatasio is a longtime contributor to Adweek, where he has been a writer and editor for two decades. Previously serving as Adweek's New England bureau chief and web editor, he remains based in Boston.