When I recently picked up the bin that I use to collect my returnables, I wasn’t greeted by the usual cacophony of clinking glass. Instead, the pang and rattle of aluminum drew my attention to the fact that nearly all the beer I’d been drinking over the past few weeks had been canned.
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On the night of the Superbowl, there are lots of surprises. Long-forgotten rappers from the 1990s and people dancing in hilarious fake shark suits make guest appearances during the halftime show. There are miraculous catches, and near-misses. And then last night, there was this:
The above ad is by far the most clear and definitive anti-craft beer advertisement I’ve ever seen – and it was aired during the Superbowl to an audience of millions. While you may have had the same visceral reaction I did, here’s what makes the ad both so effective and so threatening to craft beer. First, it’s the first time that instead of changing the conversation with horses and puppies, it’s stared directly into the camera and declared itself. These are their terms. This is Budweisers’ manifesto – and despite the details that make it hypocritical, it’s a very powerful ad, and craft brewers are going to be feeling the repercussions for a while.
“Budweiser, proudly a macro beer.”
First, we have the statement of “Budweiser, proudly a macro beer.” There’s so much just in this sentence. We’ve called Budweiser and the like “macro” beer as an opposite term to the “micro” breweries – and have used it in a derogatory sense for some time. But, much like oppressed cultures can take back words and re-claim them as their own (for instance, the term “gay” in the GLBT community has been reclaimed as a sense of pride instead of a slur). In this instance, AB-InBev seems to be similarly standing by this term. They’re saying, “We’re happy to be large, we’re happy to have shiny, big tanks that are better than yours.” The images behind the text feature the ingredients in the first few shots – some barley, some hops and then some immaculate tanks. The message here is clear – that were big and we’re proud of being big. This I expected – I wasn’t expecting the use of the term “macro” in this ad, but I was expecting that they’d be touting their history, size or something once I started to realize this was a Budweiser-centric ad.
“It’s not brewed to be fussed over.”
The statement by itself is declarative. It means that they don’t care if people are huge gushing fans or not, and that they’re proud of not caring about that. But the images tell a different story. Admittedly, here’s where my interest in this new tact from AB-Inbev turned from intrigue into anger. I think what I dislike most is that basically the last frame is a caricature – almost a parody – of a hipster male beer drinker, drinking a “fussy” dark beer. You’ve got the elements of the jock poking fun at the nerd here. Overly done glasses, twirled mustache, and smelling his beer in order to make him as far away and as much of an “other” as possible from their target demographic. The goal is to get you to think that the person in this image is ridiculous.
And, that anyone that a) looks like that, or b) treats their beer like that must be some kind of an idiot. Also, for the locals, I think this looks incredibly like Dan Paquette of Pretty Things Beer, who recently made a stink about “pay to play” practices at bars. Intentional or not, it’s a shot across the bow to the creative types in the craft beer industry.
The challenge ahead for craft brewers: Defending your “fussy” beer, and your right to fuss over it.
“It’s brewed for a crisp smooth finish.”
Here we see the first of a few false dichotomies that are presented. The opposite of “fussy” is presented as “a crisp, smooth finish.” What the ad writers want us to think here, is that things that are straightforward are good, and things that are complex or slightly difficult to understand are bad. So “crisp” and “smooth” replace fussy, as being the good characteristics that people should look at. This is a classic advertising method in which anything complex or even slightly intelligent is brushed off as stuffy, too much work and the consumer is reassured by the fact that they “understand” the simpler product.
(As a side note, the image behind the “smooth finish” part of the video has one of my beer pouring pet peeves in it – the nozzle touching the beer during the pour. Eew.)
The challenge ahead for craft brewers: Using meaningful terms to describe your beer to consumers.
“This is the only beer Beechwood aged since 1876”
They got a lot of bang for the buck in this sentence. First, they make themselves stand out by leaving “this is the only beer” on screen over a logo-emblazoned glass – this is a subtle way of dividing up the sentence so that we remember the phrase, “Budweiser is the only beer.” Secondly, “Beechwood aged” means nothing to most people, so the fact that this is the “only beer Beechwood aged” is something that a viewer is not going to question at all. Throw in a date that’s longer than anyone watching the video has been alive and, voila – in one phrase you’ve made yourself have a history, a unique characteristic, and a believable superior quality (that no one really is going to question.)
The challenge ahead for brewers: Describing any process that you’ve been using for less than 100 years.
“There’s only one Budweiser.”
This is a subtle re-wording of the take-home message of the previous section – stating their uniqueness, their ability to stand alone (which, subsequently also is the first time in this ad they’re actively denying the other brands in the AB-Inbev portfolio).
The challenge ahead for brewers: There are many, many more than one of you out there. You can’t be the “only one” IPA brewer, so what are you going to do to distinguish your brand?
“It’s brewed for drinking not dissecting.”
This is round two of the us-versus-them imagery presented with the first “fussy” image. Now we have three people – all male, but we’ll get to that later – that are also caricatures of hipsters, in a bar that’s decorated to look like an expensive, trendy gastropub. (Anyone catch that they misspelled “steak tartare?”).
Again, we’re putting up a false dichotomy between “dissecting” a beer and “drinking” a beer, and this also has that slight anti-science vibe to it (probably added in there because of the recent polls about the difference between scientist opinions and public opinions on things like Global Warming and food). The message is clearly that you’re not ever supposed to think about beer, you’re just supposed to consume it. So why are you talking about your beer, you nerd? Be a good consumer and just DRINK it.
The challenge ahead for brewers: Reassuring your customers that dissecting beer is an okay – and worthwhile – pursuit. This includes questioning the quality of beer.
“Let them sip their pumpkin peach ale.”
So… you know how AB-Inbev recently purchased a brewery named Elysian? You know what they were famous for? Pioneering pumpkin beer. [Update: Apparently, they also brewed a Pumpkin Peach Ale too.]
But again, we’re seeing the ad use the same tactic as before. We’ve got a “them” here that’s treated as other. It’s now clear that the “them” is the craft beer drinker. Let those hipster idiots “fuss” over and “dissect” their beer. AB is telling you things that are reassuring to anyone remotely insecure about their masculinity. The brand says, “You’re not geeky like that. You’re not going to drink a pumpkin peach ale, are you?” Now, this brings gender back into the picture, too. I think this is also calling out the apparent non-manliness of the craft beer drinker. The above examples have been thin, white, pale, hipster like men, and have been wearing sweaters and pondering their beers in the imagery. Are they the types that would drink a disgusting-sounding pumpkin peach ale? Of course they are. The ad is whispering, “Are you the type of person that would drink a pumpkin peach ale? Of course not. Because you’re not a frou-frou geek, are you? No. You’re a man.” And if you were the type that would try a pumpkin peach ale, you’ve already been outed as “them.”
The challenge ahead for brewers: Balancing creativity with the need for the beer drinking public to be secure about what they’re drinking.
“We’ll be brewing golden suds.”
Another false dichotomy. If it isn’t a complex, outside of the box beer like stouts or fruit or pumpkin beer, the only opposite to that is “golden suds.” I think Stone Brewing company has done a nice job of chipping away at this with their “Fizzy Yellow Beer is for Wussies” campaign, but for the non-craft drinker, this can be problematic. The yellow stuff is what they’re used to. Scare them away with something non yellow and you might never get them back.
The challenge ahead for brewers: Getting people out of only gravitating towards pee-colored beer.
“The people who drink our beer…”
Contrasting the faux gastropub of the earlier bar scene, we’re now presented with a night-time scene at a busy bar filled with attractive, thirsty guys. A woman servers up Budweisers in the bottle, and it looks like a good time is going to be had by all. Here’s where you can start noticing the fact that only men are drinking in this scenario. What are the women doing? Serving beer.
This scene is reinforcing the heterosexual, normative image of a guy’s night out, clearly reinforcing that way of life. No time to question any of what the audience of this ad already knows to be true. Men/guys drink beer for fun, and attractive women bring the beer to them, making the evening even more fun. No one is stopping to look at their beer, they’re ordering them by the handful and drinking them right up. This is the scene that Budweiser wants you to think is the only normal way to hang out with friends. And think about it – ordering trays full of beer is a great way to feel secure in your life and for a bar to sell lots of Budweiser.
The challenge ahead for brewers: Can you ever make people feel this normal and stereotypically comfortable drinking your beer?
“… are people who like to drink beer brewed the hard way.”
Notice that we’re again laying out the perfect audience? One that appreciates the hard work that goes into making a beer. But beer “brewed the hard way” is as meaningless to most consumers as the Beechwood aging is. But what this ad has done is planted the idea that somehow it is harder (and manlier) to make Budweiser as awesome as it is. And you – the consumer – are the type of red-blooded American who appreciates the hard work it took to create that beer.
The challenge ahead for brewers: People thinking that you’re somehow brewing the “easy” way. (I know, I can hear you laughing, and crying, from here).
This is the famous Budweiser beer. This Bud’s for you.
And, rounding towards the finish we had to splash in the feeling of comfort, of recognition. The font of this ad is different than other Budweiser ads. The tone is different. So the ad now needs to reassure you that yes, this is still the Budweiser you know and love. They even kept (or revived?) the “This Bud’s for you” tagline. So what’s happened here is that the ad has gone back to the beginning, touting its steadfast-ness and it’s ability to stand the test of time.
The challenge to brewers: How will your customers know that they are always getting the same quality from your brand, again and again?
Some of you might be thinking, “Well, so what?”
What I hope I’ve illustrated is that this ad has fundamentally challenged what potential craft beer consumers see as weaknesses: things are hard to understand, they’re too complex, too trendy, too unknown. This sentiment will now be reverberated throughout the macro beer drinkers and even the ones that have just tried craft. It might make a consumer just a little hesitant to order a fruit beer. A little shy of going to a trendy gastropub. And every time that happens, AB-InBev benefits, and non-macro beer suffers. I hope we can use this ad as a dialogue, as a starting point, and focus our responses towards making our own industry stronger.