Did the ‘Drunktown’ campaign ads work?

Businessman Dean Debnam says his “Drunktown” ads, which featured this nauseous-looking man on a sidewalk.
Businessman Dean Debnam says his “Drunktown” ads, which featured this nauseous-looking man on a sidewalk.

The creator of an ad campaign accusing city council candidates of turning downtown Raleigh into “Drunktown” says his efforts paid off in Tuesday’s election results.

Businessman Dean Debnam’s ads, which feature a nauseous young man clutching a lamppost – perhaps after an evening of heavy drinking – have largely faced ridiculed on social media.

#Drunktown has become a trending topic on Twitter, where some have pointed out that the ad wasn’t even produced downtown.

The “drunk guy” shown is actually standing outside an office building off Edwards Mill Road, about seven miles from downtown. He’s a recent N.C. State graduate who used to work at longtime political strategist Brad Crone’s firm. Crone produced the ad for Debnam and has his offices in the building pictured.

Someone created a Twitter handle for the character, @DrunkTownGuy, and House of Swank is adding a “Drunktown NC” T-shirt to its line of North Carolina-themed clothing.

But Debnam said Wednesday that plenty of voters agreed with his message – that downtown bar and nightclub owners were seeking to elect a city council that would oppose restrictions on sidewalk drinking.

“Residents of Raleigh spoke with a clear voice on what the vision for Raleigh should be – and it is not #DrunkTown,” Debnam wrote in a statement released by his attorney. “In all, only two of the seven candidates that bar and nightclub owners endorsed were elected.”

Two challengers and downtown advocates, Ashton Smith and Matt Tomasulo, didn’t come close to unseating incumbents who’d supported sidewalk drinking restrictions. Two incumbents, Councilmen John Odom and Eugene Weeks, were defeated.

Twitter users had a similar analysis of the election results.

But Tuesday’s election wasn’t a complete loss for opponents of sidewalk drinking restrictions. The “Keep Raleigh Vibrant” organization also endorsed incumbents Bonner Gaylord and Mary-Ann Baldwin, who easily cruised to reelection.

The “Drunktown” ads specifically named Baldwin, accusing her of supporting looser liquor laws that would turn “downtown into Drunktown.”

In a blog post titled “Vomit Politics,” Democratic political consultant Gary Pearce argued that Baldwin’s win is a loss for Debnam.

“Voters didn’t believe it,” Pearce wrote. “They didn’t believe for a minute that a member of the city council wanted drunks throwing up all over the sidewalks late at night.”

Debnam, however, points out that Baldwin “received the fewest votes and lowest percentage of the last several election cycles.” In 2013, she had more than 10,000 more votes than she received Tuesday.

But those numbers might say more about voter turnout – and the number of at-large candidates – than Baldwin’s popularity. She received the most votes Tuesday of any at-large candidate.

School board races were on the ballot in 2013, resulting in a higher overall turnout. The legislature has since moved those contests to even-numbered years. And two years ago, Baldwin and fellow at-large Councilman Russ Stephenson had no serious opponents. This year, they had two.

Even with the election over, the fight over downtown drinking will likely continue as the city council reviews its new sidewalk rules. And expect #Drunktown to remain a running joke among the social media crowd.

Some are already visiting the suburban office building to reenact the ads:

Colin Campbell: 919-829-4698, @RaleighReporter