Here’s To (Respecting) Beer!

Posted on Posted in Anheuser-Busch, BeerAdvocate Mag, Here's To Beer

For beer advocates who engage in daily public relations campaigns in the name of better beer, the issue of respect is paramount. These dedicated enthusiasts spread the good news about their love of beer to others one pint at a time. They sidle up to strangers in pubs to influence what they’re drinking, listen stealthily when orders are considered, and at just the right time they offer praise for their favorite local brewery or beer.

For a long time, America’s biggest brewers didn’t seem particularly interested in helping this rag-tag band of beer missionaries spread the gospel of respecting beer. The big guys had their own agenda and it often involved promoting beer through flatulent horses, talking frogs, and bikini-clad twins. And for a long time, the T&A advertising strategy worked well with the beer pong and bong crowd. But then something happened: consumers started to care what beverages other people saw them drinking. Beer’s sales and overall market share stalled and then contracted. Newspaper and magazine stories heralded the death of beer.

The big brewers freaked at the news. After years of following the same crass marketing playbook, beer suddenly had a bad image and a black eye. In a remarkable confession to the Wall Street Journal, Miller’s marketing chief Tom Long took responsibility for the problem. “People will tell you that beer is not sophisticated enough, or stylish enough, to compete with wine and spirits,? he told the journal. “Why do they think that? Well, I believe it’s because we told them to.?

America’s largest brewer was nearly scared straight by beer’s alarming decline. With 50-percent market share, Anheuser-Busch had good reason to be concerned and its executives decided against simply changing a few ads. Instead, the company launched a highly publicized effort designed to elevate public opinion and appreciation of beer.

HTBThe ‘Here’s To Beer’ campaign debuted in February 2006 with a high-profile Super Bowl ad showing beer drinkers clinking glasses and offering toasts in a multitude of locations and languages. A-B approached other brewers to seek their input and support for the campaign but with little success. Miller and Coors declined the invitation to participate and larger craft brewers remained skeptical about A-B’s dedication and ability to promote respect for beer. A few print ads followed the television spot, but soon thereafter the campaign went dormant.

Nearly a year later, and with many media types wondering aloud about the future of the campaign, A-B released the second phase of Here’s To Beer. In March, the HTB website was overhauled, with web video added as well as a useful interactive educational component called ‘The Beer Connoisseur.’ The campaign also released American Brew, an admirable and historically balanced documentary on the history of American brewing by filmmaker Roger Sherman that premiered on the History Channel in April.

While A-B’s efforts have made some significant contributions to public appreciation for beer, the HTB campaign has occasionally lost focus on its focal point: respecting beer. Of all efforts associated with the recent relaunch of HTB, one of the most advertised was a video series featuring a comedian playing several historical characters. With its rich traditions and history, the features could be mined for both laughs and respectful moments about beer.

The initial spots fail tragically on all counts. In one video, visitors are invited to enjoy a beer with, of all people, Genghis Khan. The Mongolian conqueror begins by complaining about his undeserved “bad rap.? He whines that just because “you plunder a few villages and sodomize the inhabitants? that everybody thinks you’re a bad guy. He continues his tirade by talking about buggery and invites the visitor to assault the bar “wench? when she comes by. While a beer sits next to him on the table, he never references it. The Ben Franklin spot, in which the founding father talks about go-go dancers at Studio 54 and his desire to “impregnate the barmaid tonight,? fares no better. At least Franklin actually drinks the beer in between telling you that “Poor Richard was almost called Big Richard if you know what I’m talking about.?

Now if I was watching an ad for Bud Light, I might not give a second thought to the crassness of the history spots. Even if you find Genghis’s rant hilarious, if your sole purpose is to elevate public appreciation of beer, associating it with anal rape and bar maid assaults hardly seems the best way to generate respect.

While the HTB campaign isn’t perfect, the failure of Miller or Coors to make this an industry-wide initiative is disappointing to say the least. Smaller craft brewers, including the Boston Beer Company, can only do so much to promote public appreciation of beer. In the face of gains made by spirits and wine producers, the bigger brewers need to recognize this is a time for industry unity. Beer advocates can’t achieve true public respect for their favorite beverage if the biggest players continue to publicly disrespect beer.

–A version of this article appeared in the June 2007 issue of BeerAdvocate Magazine.

PostScript: After I conducted a lengthy interview with Tom Shipley, director of Global Industry Development at Anheuser Busch, the Genghis Khan spot I discuss here disappeared from the Here’s To Beer website. It was replaced with a spot that does not contain much of the content I criticized in the column.

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