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 impact.

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 ordinary.

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