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WTF: What's Up With the Vermont Lottery Zombies?

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October marks the official start of zombie season. It's the one month of the year when it's socially acceptable to dress in shredded, blood-streaked rags, limp around as a flesh-gnawing corpse, and moan threateningly at friends and strangers alike. This close to Halloween, most folks laugh it off as a seasonal shtick — provided the groping stays to a minimum.

Vermont is no stranger to the zombie craze: About a year ago, black-and-yellow bumper stickers with the words "Zombie Patrol" began appearing in convenience stores and supermarkets throughout the state. The stickers feature a couple, armed with a pitchfork and axe — the latter might also be a cricket bat à la the 2004 zombie flick Shaun of the Dead — fending off two stiff-armed attackers. Beneath the blood-splattered illustration is the Vermont Lottery's website address.

It requires no great investigative skills to deduce that Zombie Patrol was a state-sponsored ad campaign aimed at boosting lottery ticket sales. Granted, it was a departure from the usual scratch-ticket memes that typically reference card games ("Blackjack Attack," "Deuces Wild," "Pair of Hearts"); the allure of Trump-like fortunes ("Fat Cat," "Ruby Riches," "Platinum Payout," "Money Tree"); or just the sad and pathetic ("Dollars 'n' Dirt," "Did I Win?"). Odds are, the answer to that last question is "Fuck, no!"

So why did the Vermont Lottery Commission embrace a marketing scheme that depicts brainless and decrepit meat sacks trying to satisfy their hunger for flesh before being decapitated with a farm implement? Scorching self-satire? The lottery is, after all, a government program that each year separates Vermonters from $100 million to $110 million of their money, all in the name of funding public education — about 1.5 percent of the state ed budget, anyway.

Turns out, the explanation boils down to three words that totally hit the jackpot with scratch-ticket buyers: "The Walking Dead."

AMC's gory, smash-hit TV series, now in its sixth season, revolves around a band of zombie apocalypse survivors and is loosely based on the comic book series of the same name. "The Walking Dead" TV franchise has grown into such a ratings and marketing juggernaut that it's spawned a skull-crushing flood of merchandise, including coffee mugs, belt buckles, plush toys, jewelry, Lego characters and, yes, even lottery tickets.

For about four months last year, the Vermont Lottery offered "The Walking Dead" scratch tickets for $2 a pop, according to Jeff Cavender, director of marketing and sales at the Vermont Lottery Commission. However, because the state was restricted in its use of "The Walking Dead" name and imagery, Cavender says they had to figure out an "end-around" for marketing the short-lived product.

The solution: The commission distributed 25,000 free "Zombie Patrol" bumper stickers anywhere the scratch tickets were sold. The stickers were part of a larger promotional campaign that also included social media, product giveaways and a free "membership" in the Vermont Zombie Patrol. Says Cavender, "A lot of people grabbed onto that."

The VLC certainly wasn't the first governmental agency infected with the zombie bug. That honor likely belongs to the Department of Defense's U.S. Strategic Command, which, in the summer of 2009 and 2010, created a "counter-zombie dominance" training tool for emergency planners at the Joint and Combined Warfighting School, in Norfolk, Va.

As the 31-page planning document, officially titled CONPLAN 8888, explains in its disclaimer, "This plan was not actually designed as a joke." STRATCOM didn't want to risk the political fallout of having a fictional plan, which used real nations and actors, fall into the wrong hands and get mistaken for the real deal. So it used a zombie apocalypse instead.

"Because the plan was so ridiculous, our students not only enjoyed the lessons, they actually were able to explore the basic concepts ... very effectively," CONPLAN 8888 reads. "We also hoped that this type of nontraditional training approach would provide inspiration for other personnel trying to teach topics that can be very boring."

Following on the heels of the DoD's zombie deterrence came a more widely reported public education campaign, launched in May 2011 by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, called "Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse."

This campaign, which is still live on the CDC website, includes a list of supplies for making an emergency kit, instructions for preparing emergency plans with family and friends, a free (and creepy) downloadable poster of a female zombie's undead eyes and fingers, and even a brief history of zombies in popular culture.

"You may laugh now," the website reads, "but when it happens, you'll be happy you read this, and, hey, maybe you'll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency."

The CDC campaign was so effective that it spawned copycat campaigns, including those by the Kansas Division of Emergency Management and the Missouri Department of Conservation. It seems the Show Me State suffers from a zombie-like infestation of feral pigs and other whack-worthy invasives.

Evidently, the folks at the Vermont Lottery Commission were unaware of the governmental zombie zeitgeist; for his part, Cavender claims he never heard of it. Moreover, he insists Zombie Patrol wasn't meant as social commentary on the seemingly mindless behavior of buying scratch tickets: "Exactly the opposite. It was just plain fun."

"But because Zombie Patrol was so successful, both from engagement and the social media aspect, it'll show up again," Cavender adds. "I can't tell you when, how or why, but it will."

Might be time to invest in a crossbow.

The original print version of this article was headlined "What's Up With the Zombie Patrol Bumper Stickers?"

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