This Sunday, Super Bowl viewers will bear witness to four minutes of Budweiser and Bud Light commercials. The New York Times business section has framed the Anheuser-Busch ad agenda as “back to basics,” but reports that “the company still has an ambitious agenda,” including a spot for “a new reclosable aluminum package called the Cool Twist bottle.” A 15-second commercial released last month describes the Cool Twist bottle as “colder than cold,” which is back to basics indeed—bragging about coldness is one of the most beloved tropes of beer-commercial copywriting.
Broadly speaking, these commercials fall into three categories. The first type of glacial posturing involves alluding to snow and ice without actually saying anything about the beer in question. Consider a vintage Miller Genuine Draft ad in which opening a bottle magically causes it to start snowing in the middle of the jungle, or more recent Coors Light ads in which arctic explorers brave ice floes to bring extra-cold beer to a bartender:
The second kind of brisk braggadocio is talking about how cold the beer was while it was being made. MillerCoors, for instance, claims on its website that “Coors Light’s unique frost-brewing process locks in a taste as cold as the Rockies.” Miller Genuine Draft claims in a commercial to be “cold-filtered for smoothness” (and it’s been using this line for a while). “Frost-brewing” and “cold-filtering” are both fairly meaningless terms, the kind of obfuscation embodied by Lucky Strike’s famous tagline “It’s toasted!” (Which was not created by Don Draper, by the way; it’s been around since 1917.) All lagers are conditioned at near-freezing temperatures, and cold filtering is a popular alternative to pasteurization, because it’s faster and cheaper. Beer is always made from liquid that’s been boiled with hops, so it’s not as though these beers are kept at low temperatures from beginning to end—if they were, they’d taste even more like water than they already do. (The incoherence of marketing-speak like “frost-brewed” and “cold-filtered” are popular targets of vitriol on homebrewing message boards.)
The third type of icy swagger involves highlighting some special packaging that either keeps beer colder (like the Cool Twist bottle ostensibly does) or gives some kind of indication when the beer is cold enough to drink. The images of mountains on Coors Light cans and bottles, for instance, turn blue when chilled. And Busch labels are marked with an image of an “ice cold easy” thermometer that does the same. Busch’s commercials for this label attempt to expose the meaninglessness of the cold arms race even while buying into it: “Want the cold truth?” they ask. “All beers are chilled equally. But only one has a taste as smooth as its name.”
All of these approaches obscure an obvious fact: How cold a beer is has nothing to do with how it’s brewed and packaged and everything to do with whether and how long the consumer refrigerates it before drinking it. No thinking person would ever claim to like Beer Brand A more than Beer Brand B because Beer Brand A is colder. But beer advertisements aren’t geared toward thinking people—they’re geared toward thirsty people. Commercials that brag about beer’s coldness are a wildly unsubtle attempt to circumvent viewers’ rationality by appealing to their baser instincts. Whatever your level of media literacy, a bottle of beer that sheds fragments of ice as it’s slammed down on a countertop in slow motion looks pretty darn refreshing.
Plus, heavily emphasizing that Bud Light, for instance, is “colder than cold” encourages people to chill their beer as thoroughly as possible, which reduces the likelihood that they’ll ever find out just how bad Bud Light really tastes. As my colleague Mark Garrison reported in 2012, cold “masks the flaws of flavorless macrobrews.” At cold temperatures, beers don’t smell like anything, and they feel tinglier on the tongue, so their flavor is less noticeable. Garrison writes,
Frigid temperature is therefore ideal for the thin, tasteless lagers flowing out of large breweries. The big brewers know their beer has little to offer in the way of flavor or aroma, so their marketing stresses ice-cold refreshment. If the drink can’t provide taste, at least drinkers can feel something on their tongues when it’s hyper-chilled.
Ah, the truth. So refreshing.