Kidnapped Chicagoan Ad Campaign Encourages Our Timid Northern Neighbors to Visit St. Louis

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One day in May, a Chicago man boarded an El train (or maybe it was a bus) -- and disappeared. No one actually saw the abduction, but reports of the dastardly deed appeared all over the city's mass transit, along with hints that more information could be found on the website

click to enlarge Kidnapped Chicagoan Ad Campaign Encourages Our Timid Northern Neighbors to Visit St. Louis
courtesy Hoffman/Lewis
Visitors to the website were confronted with a terrifying photo of an ordinary Chicago man, reportedly fond of deep-dish pizza, neon-green relish and "Da Bears", bound with ropes in a mystery location. Anyone who could provide information about the man's whereabouts could win a prize. People could also call his cell phone to leave voice messages of encouragement.

In time, the kidnappers allowed the Chicagoan to Tweet about his experiences and check in on foursquare. They even took video of him riding roller coasters and attending baseball games. Clearly, captivity was not all bad. Especially since the man had been spirited off to a place that, despite its bad reputation among his fellow Chicagoans, was actually pretty great.

You guessed it (though, sadly, the prize has already been awarded): The kidnapped Chicagoan was in St. Louis. And the whole "abduction" was really a ploy by the St. Louis Convention & Visitors Commission (CVC) and Hoffman/Lewis, a St. Louis ad agency, to lure other Chicagoans here.

The campaign was born, says Hoffman/Lewis creative director Mark Manion, when staffers were kicking around ideas to lure Chicagoans to St. Louis. Typically, the CVC targets residents of smaller towns.

"Everyone who comes here is pleasantly surprised," says Manion. "But there's this perception that keeps people from Chicago from coming. It's hard. Chicago's got everything. The only way to do it, we thought, would be to kidnap someone and bring them here and show them what a great place it is. We decided we would trick people into believing he had really been kidnapped."

For verisimilitude, Hoffman/Lewis hired Scott Stangland, an actual Chicagoan who had never been to St. Louis, to portray the kidnap victim. During one hectic weekend, members of the account team took Stangland around town and took videos of him enjoying himself at various locations, like Six Flags, the Magic House, the City Museum, a restaurant on the Hill and the Arch.

The Kidnapped Chicagoan caused the biggest stir at Busch Stadium, where he proudly wore his Cubs hat. "Fans trash talk him. Fredbird razzes him," says Blake Padberg, the account director.

Later on, he appeared to suffer a case of Stockholm Syndrome. Wriggling out of his rope binding at last, he exulted, "I'm free!" But, after looking around, he reconsidered. "Eh, I'll stay," he said, picking up the rope. "Where're we going next?"

Back in Chicago, the abductee's plight aroused some curiosity and concern among his fellow citizens. Padberg says the site had 25,000 unique visitors, and 3,000 people actually called the Kidnapped Chicagoan's "cell phone." (You can listen to some of their messages on the website.) Others Tweeted and blogged about it.

It's still unclear, however, how many of them followed him down I-55. The CVC won't release its visitor statistics until the end of the summer tourist season. (For numbers, they rely on hotel-room bookings.)

The folks at Hoffman/Lewis are extremely proud of the Kidnapped Chicagoan campaign. "We used so many different apps," says Manion. "Twitter, blog posts, foursquare." (For the record, although the Kidnapped Chicagoan checked in at several locations, he did not become the mayor of any of them. "He got some badges, though," says Padberg.)

Padberg agrees. "We definitely raised St. Louis's profile in Chicago."

It remains an unanswered question what that profile was like to begin with.

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