True lies - or beer and advertising
By Alan Moen
We've all seen the scenario: in a steamy train station at midnight,
the passionate lover tries to convince his girl not to leave him. "Don't
go" he signs to her as she sits facing him from the train window." "I
must," she insists. "As the train pulls out. he runs alongside, holding up
another sign: "At least let me have your Bud Light." Her response is
cryptic: "Pole." A second later, our hero encounters a train station pole
head first, falling like a Sequoia to the earth. We laugh; score another
point for Budweiser, hitting us right between the eyes with its message, as
usual, but doing it in a clever way that takes some of the sting out of the
Beer and advertising, especially TV advertising, have been drinking
buddies for a long time. Television, was, in McLuhan's phrase, a "cool"
medium, able to seduce us with an image more powerfully than mere words.
And for quite a while in post-prohibition America, it seemed that the only
real differences in the products of U.S. breweries lay in their advertising
itself. Miller introduced its "lite" beer with skits of athletes competing
in beer controversy, arguing whether the beer was better because it had
"more taste" or was "less filling". Behind the humor of these spots, the
psychological strategy of linking sports stars with what might be perceived
as a watered-down beer clearly worked.
For me the best of the early beer ads were those of Rainier
Brewery, crafted by a two-person ad agency, Heckler and Bowker, in Seattle.
(Gordon Bowker went on to found the Starbucks Coffee Company). Zany and
unpredictable, the Heckler/Bowker ads were like nothing else in the
industry: Mickey Rooney , a la Marlon Perkins, trying to capture the "wild
Rainiers"; a row of bottle caps falling like dominoes to form the Rainier
logo; a biker sounding out RaaaaiiiiiNeeeeeeeerBeeeeeeeeer as he speeds
into the sunset, with the beer's namesake mountain looming in the distance.
Frogs in a swamp (now recreated by Budweiser) making their Rainier sounds.
The ads were quirky, sometimes brilliant; the beer was, well, pretty
Picasso is often quoted as saying that "art is the lie that makes
us see the truth. "But advertising seems too often to be nothing but a
lie, period. Are we really supposed to believe that Sam Adams is "the best
beer in America?" That opening a Miller Genuine Draft (how's that for
deception in a name?) will bring snow to Chicago in midsummer and get us a
date with a supermodel as well? That having a Red Wolf lager will help us
score in a singles bar? Nice fantasies they are, the stock in trade of the
business, but what they tell us about beer is basically nothing. In fact,
one might argue that the more bland the product, like Zima, the more
necessary a creative ad campaign to sell it.
Small-scale brewers, of course, cannot afford television or major
market advertising, and must rely heavily on word of mouth to sell their
beer. This is ultimately the best advertising of all, for the loyalty of
beer lovers is legendary.
This is true even for mediocre beers. I once attended a party and found
that the only choice in beer was between two industrial lagers. Even though
the brews tasted virtually the same, those who drank one were adamant about
shunning the other (De gustibus non est disputandum).
So what's my point? Simply this. Creative advertising is fine, and
breweries need to sell their products, but they should keep any deception
about the beer itself to a minimum. Craft breweries, as they gain momentum
in the industry, need to keep their promotions focused on the ingredients
and techniques that make their beer stand apart. All the lies in the world,
innovative or not, won't make a bad beer taste any better.
© 1996 Alan Moen