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Here’s to Respect
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, listen stealthily when orders are being considered and, at just the right time, offer praise for their favorite local brewery or beer.
For a long time, America’s biggest brewers didn’t seem particularly interested in helping these beer missionaries to spread the gospel of respecting beer. The big guys had their own agenda. 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 about what beverages they were seen drinking. Beer’s sales and overall market share stalled.
Then they 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, had good reason to be concerned, and its executives decided to do more than just change a few ads. Instead, the company launched a highly publicized effort designed to elevate public opinion and appreciation of beer.
The “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 had little success. Miller and Coors declined the invitation to participate, while 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 unveiled the second phase of Here’s To Beer. In March, they overhauled the HTB website (herestobeer.com) and added a useful interactive educational component called “Beer Connoisseur.” The campaign also released The 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 sight of its focus: respecting beer. Of all efforts associated with the recent relaunch of HTB, one of the most advertised was an online video series featuring a comedian playing several historical characters. It’s a promising premise—the rich history and tradition of brewing culture could be mined for both laughs and respectful moments about beer.
But the initial spots fail tragically on both 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,” everybody thinks you’re a bad guy. Then he continues to rant about buggery and invites the visitor to assault the bar “wench” when she comes by. A beer sits next to him on the table, but 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 his beer—when he’s not telling you that “Poor Richard was almost called Big Richard—if you know what I’m talking about.”
Now, if I were watching an ad for Bud Light, I might not think twice about the crassness of the history spots. But even if you find Genghis’s tirade hilarious, if your sole purpose is to elevate public appreciation of beer, associating it with anal rape and barmaid groping hardly seems the best way to go about it.
Still, while the HTB campaign isn’t perfect, the failure of both Miller and Coors to make this an industry-wide initiative is far more disappointing. Smaller craft brewers like the Boston Beer Company can only do so much to promote public appreciation of beer. In the face of gains made by wine and spirits producers, the bigger brewers need to recognize that this is a time for solidarity. Beer advocates can’t achieve true public respect for their favorite beverage if the industry’s biggest players continue to publicly disrespect beer. ■