How beer commercials ape political ads.

How beer commercials ape political ads.

How beer commercials ape political ads.

Advertising deconstructed.
June 21 2004 3:53 PM

Budslinging

How beer commercials ape political ads (and why they shouldn't).

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The spot: A familiar-looking talking lizard, while shooting the breeze with another talking lizard, mentions that Miller was bought by South African Breweries. Thus, he notes, Miller is not eligible to hold elective office in the United States, and can't run for "President of Beers." "Oh, that's too bad," his lizard buddy replies. "Miller ran all those commercials for nothing." In a separate, related spot, a donkey consults with the Budweiser Clydesdales. They, too, are surprisingly well-informed about Miller's corporate parentage. (You can view these spots here.)

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

Last week, at an industry gala I went to  (oh, the swanky hobnobbing I endure in the name of research), a veteran ad director mentioned his work on a Budweiser campaign. He said it was wonderful to deal with a client that's so "confident" in its own image. By contrast, he said, when a company is "skittish," that shows up in the ads it makes, too. Consumers can smell fear.

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It's an interesting thought, given the surprisingly nasty ad war going on now between Bud and Miller. Miller started it, but I was a tad shocked when Bud responded. It seemed beneath them. Almost ... insecure.

It began when Miller launched its "President of Beers" campaign. (You can watch a couple of the spots here.) In these mock political ads, a Miller spokesman debates a (mute) Budweiser Clydesdale. He argues, using politician-y, clenched-thumb hand gestures, that America needs a "President"—and not a "King"—of beers. It's a shot at Budweiser's well-known (and carefully nurtured) nickname.

Something about these ads must have struck a nerve over at Anheuser-Busch. It seems the Bud guys could not stomach this bold attack on the heart of their brand—not only the "King of Beers" slogan but even the beloved, majestic Clydesdale.

So they replied with disproportionate force. Some reports say that A-B execs gave an order to "unleash the dawgs." They ran print ads calling Miller the "Queen of Carbs." And in three separate television spots, Bud notes that Miller is South African-owned, and thus by law not eligible to run for president of beers.

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(This assumes, of course, that beer-president campaigns use electoral guidelines akin to those of standard, non-beer, U.S. presidential campaigns, and that corporate parentage determines beer-citizenship status. But I'm OK with that assumption—electoral beer law is hazy on the matter, and the beer constitution offers no clear answers.)

Bud's dirty work gets carried out by an assortment of talking animals. The swamp chameleons, * Louie and Frank, have been exhumed after several years' absence. And who better, when you need to get nasty, than cold-blooded, highly sarcastic reptiles? I did, however, feel it was an error to enlist the Budweiser donkey in the fight. The donkey was nothing but sweetness and light when it made its debut in a Super Bowl ad this year. Now it's down in the ditch with the lizards, and a promising new character has been tainted forever. Worse still, the Clydesdales make cameo appearances in the donkey spots. No way should the Clydesdales go negative. They're far too important to the brand; their appeal stems entirely from their wholesomeness and majesty; and so they should be held above the fray at all costs. Badly done, Bud.

In fact, I'd argue the entire Bud response is a big mistake. Yes, in one sense, Bud's counterstrike is brilliant. Miller was set to milk this President of Beers conceit all the way into November (paralleling the real election), and no doubt had sundry plans for developing it over weeks and months. Now Bud, with this utter deluge of lizard and donkey spots (I think I've seen more of them than I've seen of the original Miller ads), has strangled the campaign in its infancy. There's no way for Miller to just ignore the South Africa thing—they've been put on the defensive. And your average domestic swill drinker might actually be swayed by Bud's classic pander to beer nationalism. (Funny how beer-campaign candidates, just like the real ones, so quickly resort to calling their opponents un-American.)

But just because Bud could castrate the Miller campaign with a casual flick of its wrist, should it have? There's a chance Miller will find some clever way to turn this around. (After all, the President of Beers campaign came from Weiden+Kennedy—Nike's ad agency. W+K is more than capable of whipping up a great response.) If that happens, suddenly Bud is mud wrestling with a competitor it shouldn't even acknowledge. Bud's got a massive market share lead, and it gains nothing by trading blows with the distant No. 2.

Grade: C+. A huge part of Bud's strength as a brand is that confidence the ad director talked about. Bud knows exactly who it is, what it stands for, and what people want from it. It's the alpha-beer. It should have simply ignored Miller's nips at its heels. By reacting, so quickly and so disproportionately, Bud shows fear. Consumers hate that.

Correction, June 26, 2004: This piece initially called the Budweiser lizards "swamp iguanas." They're actually chameleons. ( Return to the corrected sentence.)