Marolt: Branding our way to riches and human tragedy
November 3, 2015
We have the second highest proportion of divorced population in the state, which is 22 percent higher than anywhere else in our country. We have the second highest number of bars and liquor stores per capita and nearly three times the number of chronic drinkers as the national average. Local residents who admit to illegal drug use is nearly five times that of the rest of the United States. Suicide occurs twice as often in our community than in the rest of Colorado and three times as often as it does on average in the other 49 states. Aspen High School students are 20 percent more likely to drink alcohol and more than 40 percent more likely to smoke pot than other American kids their age.
So, this is paradise?
I suppose it depends on who you ask. For the average tourist whose experience and mindset likely move lockstep with the annual ski and travel magazine polls that rank us perpetually near the top for skiing and partying, the answer is likely, "Hell, yes. Aspen/Snowmass rocks!" On the other hand, it appears that a lot of locals are having a hard time coping in a place that is portrayed as the perfect place to live.
What got me looking into this was an article in the Aspen Daily News on Saturday about Aspen ranking as Colorado's "drunkest city." The story was based on an article on the website http://www.roadsnacks.net. Most of the data was compiled from U.S. Census Bureau numbers. I supplemented their conclusions with numbers I sifted from University of Michigan studies on teenage drinking and drug use and our own Pitkin County Community Health Report from 2009-10.
Here's the thing: We're proud of our party town reputation, and it's good for business. But, I think we might be selling our soul in the process of promoting this. I'm afraid our advertising and brand-enhancing efforts directed at visitors influence us, too.
As much as we hate to admit it, advertising works really well; not only on the targeted market, but on pretty much everyone who is exposed to it. I mean, I'm not in the market for a new BMW, but through advertising and media exposure my impression is that they are nice cars, even though I'm not crazy about the image they portray. Not surprisingly, the more people like me who have favorable impressions of those cars, whether or not we'd ever drive one ourselves, the more they appeal to people who actually might buy one, which makes the people who sell them happy, so there is ample incentive for advertisers to reach huge groups of people besides their direct customers.
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By this same effect through association, my guess is that a whole lot of people in our part of the world view extreme partying more favorably than folks who live in other parts of the world where productivity and success in commerce is measured in metrics other than sales tax collections from liquor stores and bars or attendance counts at the X Games and rock music festivals.
By the way, I'm not condemning events and vice retailers as evil things that need to be eradicated from the Roaring Fork Valley. I'm only thinking that perhaps we should give a little more thought to the healthy ideas of achieving balance in our lives and enjoying everything in moderation. And to be even more clear, I'm only indirectly concerned with what you do with your own free time, and much more directly with how we might proceed as a community to make this a safer and healthier place to live for all of us and the children we raise here because we've convinced ourselves it's such a great environment for them.
The biggest difference between visitors and us is that they can survive this town almost no matter how hard they hit it because they can go home after a week and get things back on track. We, on the other hand, live where the tracks end and once we fly off it's really hard to get back on.
A thought I often have is, what would happen if we spent less effort and money on promoting this place to partiers and hell raisers and focused our resources solely on making it comfortable and livable for our residents? What if the focus really and truly was to make this a real town first and foremost? We might lose some business, but we might not, too. Either way, I'm pretty sure we'd be healthier and happier. And, isn't that the real goal?
Roger Marolt knows a lot of human tragedy is hidden in the shadows of our beautiful mountains. firstname.lastname@example.org
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