April: an auspicious moment for a sojourn to Asheville, North Carolina, the “Sweet Cesspool of Sin.” A homecoming of sorts, a return to the scene of previous stories about the tyranny of choice confronted by the AVL’s pleasure-and-inspiration seeking visitors and the national media’s interest in the Appalachian “Beer City USA.” Also a return to a lovely Airbnb in West Asheville, a home away from home in the middle of a neighborhood The Wall Street Journal has recently labeled “half sketchy, half hip.” From the house a short walk down the French Broad means a return to Asheville’s River Arts District (RAD), cradle of art studios, galleries, restaurants, cafes, and breweries recently demeaned by Frommer’s as “sketchy.”
Only after arriving, however, did I learn of the latest in a series of skirmishes over the power to brand and define Asheville. This one pits a soda giant against a group of local activists called Love Town. On the eve of April Fool’s they painted “LOVE” over a billboard at Exit 4B entering downtown Asheville — a billboard that had read, “PEPSITOWN.”
Local press coverage and reader responses reveal sharply divided opinion about this “act of love,” as one activist defended it, or “vandalism,” as labeled by more business-oriented critics. Pepsi played along, putting out light-hearted statements about the paint-over, while Love Town declared its desire “to reclaim our town from those corporate interests who dare to claim it”:
Have you noticed the giant billboard just West of downtown Asheville on HWY 240 declaring Asheville to be “PepsiTown”? If so, maybe you, like thousands of others, have wondered what gave a corporation the right to declare Asheville their town?
Last night, we who love Asheville, transformed “Welcome to PepsiTown” into “Welcome to LoveTown” by writing Love on top of Pepsi on the Pepsi billboard. We expect that as hundreds of people drive into Asheville today, they will experience a heartfelt smile knowing that they are driving into the town they love.
It may be April fools day, but we’re not joking when it comes to keeping the heart and soul of Asheville alive and free from being owned.
We love the mountains, the rivers, the magic and the heartfelt people of Asheville. So, if this town is to be described in one word, we believe that love is a more fitting description than Pepsi.
To Pepsi we suggest keeping the love and smiles alive by continuing to sponsor this “LoveTown” billboard. After all, can’t love and Pepsi coexist? The whole town will know that you’re behind it (actually underneath it). We can all appreciate a company run by people who know in their hearts that love is the “Real Thing” over and above any brand or product.
We invite residents of Asheville to contact Pepsi and encourage them to continue to keep the Love in this town and on the billboard. You can email their media relations office at firstname.lastname@example.org
Keep drinking in the love Asheville. We love you.
Ashvegas.com‘s Stu Helm, while admiring the anti-corporate boldness of the gesture, suggests Love Town might have missed an opportunity. The graffiti protest, he argues, reflected a healthy anger at “the idea that any corporation would erect such a billboard, claiming our awesome little town as their own.” However, an activist told him the protest had been “an act of love” rather than righteous anger, and looking at the billboard, “the ‘LOVE’ lettering – which is very straight, almost perfect . . . did not in fact cover-up the word ‘PEPSI.'”
Helm eventually discarded an initial suspicion that Pepsi had defaced its own billboard as an April Fool’s PR stunt (allowing its spokesmen the chance to show how cool they are by responding with a sense of humor). Love Town is not kidding. However, “I feel as though the super-soft message of ‘LOVE,’ and the very diplomatic press release from the LoveTown Activists allowed Mr. Patton from Pepsi to have a ‘pretty good chuckle,'” writes Helm, “and apparently he feels zero pressure from Corporate HQ to remove the billboard,” which has remained as the activists left it.
In effect, the billboard’s message is now ambiguous and might work well as a kind of love-y ad for Pepsi. Even so, he concludes, at least the incident has prompted “a public conversation about graffiti, protest, corporations, branding, identity, community, and whether or not we are owned by Pepsi and other corporate interests.”
Certainly such a conversation is vital, though it seems Asheville is always having that dialogue. Is Asheville (or its RAD, or West Asheville) if not chained by the likes of Pepsi, “still sketchy?” That obviously depends entirely on definitions and priorities.
On this trip, I had planned to put to use a travel blog’s thoughtful list of “25 Best Things to Do for Families in Asheville.” It is a good list, really, but in three days we only managed two of the 25 suggestions, both of which were smashing successes: breakfast at West Asheville’s packed Biscuit Head (where the staff’s friendliness put the “love” in the AVL), and a Friday night dessert at The Hop (where a room full of hipsters were loving ice cream, too).
Asheville’s delights — mostly local, homegrown, artisanal, often funky — are plenty kid-friendly, list or no list. Shopping at the best indie bookstore in the region, Malaprop’s, for example, is not to be missed at any age. Buying fudge and the tastiest honey and jelly in the mountains at the Western North Carolina Farmers Market is another sure thing (and the kids can enjoy the outdoors Bouncy World). As for West Asheville, it’s not half hip but all hipster at BattleCat Coffee Bar, the perfect place to fly your tourist family freak flag and pick up super-cool stickers.
So, whatever the corporate branding strategies of Big Soda or the fever dreams of Frommer’s or The Wall Street Journal, let the conversation, the graffiti and the fun never end.