Amstel Light and the arbitrary nature of beer ads.

Advertising deconstructed.
June 16 2008 5:13 PM

Less Filling

Beer ads just aren't doing it for me anymore.

The Spot:A man shouts in Dutch (subtitles indicate he's saying, "Ladies and gentlemen, let's begin!"), and we see several quick-cut scenes of life in Amsterdam. Canals, canal houses, well-dressed people on bicycles, and so forth. "Exceptionally brewed for a taste that's pure Amsterdam," says the voice-over. "Dam Good City, Dam Good Tradition, One Dam Good Bier," reads the overlaid text.

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.


I'm hitting a wall with beer advertising. The more I'm subjected to it, the sillier and more arbitrary it feels. This Amstel ad, though not a uniquely offensive example, has managed to reinforce my general disgust with the genre.

By my reckoning, there are five valid, logical criteria for choosing one beer over another. 1) Flavor. 2) Calorie count. 3) Packaging (because who doesn't love the functional advantages of wide-mouths, minikegs, tallboys, and forties?). 4) Alcohol content (because some beers get you drunk much faster than others). 5) The good or bad corporate citizenship of the brewer. Everything else is just meaningless imagery.

Since Amstel Light first arrived in America in the early 1980s, its ads have focused largely on its full-bodied flavor and low calorie count. The most recent campaign was no exception: Suggestions for possible "food pairings" were a key part of the marketing plan, and the (rather snooty) tag line was "Live Tastefully." As far as imagery goes, Amstel has always targeted a better-educated, higher-income demographic, according to the vice president of marketing, Kheri Tillman. Nowhere have the beer's wussy, bourgeois leanings been more fully on display than in a 2007 ad in which a bespectacled yuppie guitarist neuters a Rolling Stones song while some catalog models look on, lounging around a lake house.

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Despite (or because of) efforts like this, Amstel failed to set itself apart in the increasingly crowded light-beer category. (I confess that for me, it had faded into an undefined crowd of continental beers with funny names—Grolsch, Stella Artois, etc.) According to Tillman, the feeling inside the company was that the brand needed a new "story" or else it would be in danger of getting lost in the shuffle.

This new ad, which debuted in May, ditches the "Live Tastefully" slogan and the flavor and calorie angles. It subtly tweaks the brand's image by switching to a different, tried-and-true sales pitch: provenance. The ad hammers at Amstel's Amsterdam origins. There are shots of the city and its denizens, a snippet of Dutch is spoken, and the tag line has now become "One Dam Good Bier."

Trumpeting provenance is a classic basis for ad campaigns. Car brands frequently focus on their geographic origins. New ads for Volkswagen, for instance, involve a Beetle speaking with a German accent, and VW's current tag line is "Das Auto." Often central to the provenance pitch is an implied authenticity. Germans are known as gifted engineers, so VW is eager to dwell on its Teutonic heritage.

The strategy is also common in the world of beer, but here it has even less grounding in reality. For instance, the theoretical underpinning of the long-running Corona campaign (bright sunshine, white sands, turquoise seas) is that Mexicans understand—better than, say, Germans—how to craft a beer that's perfectly suited to the tropical lifestyle. Does this implicit claim make any sense? Not really. I doubt most barflies, given a blindfolded test, could tell a Corona from any other watered-down brew. But thanks to years of intensive marketing, we all know it's the beer to drink when you want to imagine you're relaxing on a beautiful Mexican beach.

Provenance is mostly just a flimsy excuse for yet more meaningless imagery. That's certainly the case with this Amsterdam-centric Amstel spot. Sure, the Netherlands can legitimately claim a proud, authentic beer history. But the ad doesn't show us master brewers sniffing clumps of hops. Instead, the scenes all focus on the vibrant culture of the city. The suggestion is that if you drink Amstel, you will instantly take on (or at least project) the sophisticated, progressive personality of a native Amsterdammer. And herein lies the annoying fungibility makes me most hate beer marketing.

Consider the new campaign for Heineken Premium Light. It creates a fantasy universe in which ethnically and socioeconomically diverse citizens all come together over a shared love for the beer. This "positioning" (as it's termed in marketing) was no doubt carefully researched and painstakingly crafted. But at the same time it seems totally arbitrary. HPL is also from the Netherlands, is also a premium imported light beer, and is, in fact, a corporate sister of Amstel Light. The new Amstel marketing campaign might just as easily have been for HPL, and the HPL campaign might just as easily have worked for Amstel.

There's no weight or integrity to these brand "stories." HPL won't make you popular with people from all corners of society, just as Amstel won't make you a Dutch hipster and Corona won't transform you into a beach bum. We all know this. I'm not pretending it's a revelation. But once in a while, advertising's insistence that brands have meaningful personalities fills me with a sky-graying, soul-shrinking sense of ennui.

Someone, please pass me a tallboy.

Grade: B-. My generalized loathing aside, the ad is well made—eye-catching and fun. It's all kinetic energy, banishing the snoozy, yuppie rhythms of previous Amstel campaigns. Also, I have very positive associations with Amsterdam. (When I asked Tillman what she felt the city's image is with the average American, she deftly tiptoed around all obvious landmines. "If there had been negative feelings, we would have been concerned, but the perceptions in all the focus groups were that it's a progressive, fun, open-minded place. People talked about the culture and the architecture." Really? No one mentioned all the hookers and the bionic chronic? These elements might have been incorporated in an entirely different sort of campaign ...)

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