Saturday, February 19, 2011

For a Goofed Cause

It's not like us at Drink Moxie to simply jump on the bandwagon and comment on what everyone else is talking about in the world of advertising. But this one is just too interesting to pass up.

The Super Bowl has come and gone, and with it the year's most expensive and heavily-produced television commercials. It was the usual assortment of beers, cars, talking babies and "Go Daddies." But the real attention-getter was a rare series of television spots for the internet-based phenom Groupon. Here was the one that I saw.

There were three ads in the series. The one I didn't see, and can't find a clean web version of, links the subjugation of Tibet with Tibetan restaurants. The third, which I'm not sure ever aired except online, is this.

If you were paying attention, you already know the aftermath. After a very public apology, Groupon announced that they were pulling the campaign (which we learned was by that perennial envelope-pushing ad shop, Crispin Porter + Bogusky). Also, while the apparent intent of the ad was to poke fun at social cause-based advertising, there was also a philanthropic component to the campaign   one that was not featured in the TV commercials, but could be found online.

What does this fiasco tell us? Well, first, it reveals that while humor in advertising   however tasteless   is generally acceptable, satire can be pretty risky. Especially when there's some question about what is actually being satirized. Was this campaign making fun of social causes? The people who objected to it, and prompted the retraction, certainly seemed to think so.

When I first saw this, I read it a little differently, because it highlighted something that had been troubling me for some time. In the past several years, as we (and the people who sell us things) have discovered that today's young consumers have a particular appetite for social causes (climate change, deforestation, diseases in developing countries, and so forth   mostly, things that are pretty distant from the American experience), virtually every large purveyor of consumer products has integrated a philanthropic or cause-based component to their advertising campaigns. The change has actually been fairly staggering. Corporate philanthropy is nothing new, to be sure, but can you think of a company in the 1990s that touted a social cause in its advertising campaign? Seriously, if you think of one, let us know. (Ben & Jerry's doesn't count.)

Probably the most prominent example of this is the RED campaign, which encompasses many of today's top brands, and ensures that a portion of the sales profits go toward "fighting AIDS in Africa" (actual contributions vary, but in many cases they are significant). The hook to this campaign is that it doesn't just provide financial support, it combines conspicuous consumption with social consciousness   consumers can literally wear their cause on their clothes. Wearing a Gap RED t-shirt shows that you are socially conscious in the same way that wearing a t-shirt with a large Calvin Klein logo showed that you were fashion-conscious in the '90s.

Another example, one more directly associated with Super Bowl advertising, is the Pepsi Refresh campaign. You can find more detail about this at the link, but basically in 2010 Pepsi decided (very publicly) that it would forgo buying Super Bowl ad time and, instead, give out the money in grants to social causes. Also, in a unique combination of marketing, social consciousness, and social media, the grants would be given competitively to proposals from the general public based on an online voting system. They're doing it again this year, although those of you paying attention might have noticed that there were a number of Super Bowl spots for Pepsi Max, along with various other PepsiCo products (Doritos, for instance).

You could look at these campaigns, and the messages they send, in different ways. In one sense, they show that social consciousness is an important part of popular culture and is therefore an appropriate element of consumer culture. It shows that it's good for consumers and companies alike to think about the well-being of the global community when making their purchasing choices. And by fitting into the competitive landscape of marketing, it encourages other companies to do the same thing. Overall, benign.

But to look at it in a slightly different way, it sends a message that social consciousness is good, but only as long as it fits into the consumer structure that companies have worked so hard to build over many years. To pick on Pepsi (because it's easy), it might be great that they are giving money toward social causes, but what if the really important cause is to combat childhood obesity by getting kids to stop drinking Pepsi? An American Express RED card might be a great thing, but what if the better thing for the world would be for us to save more of our money and charge less to our credit cards, thus leaving us with more money that we could give to charity?

As much as we might care about the importance of advertising in our culture, I think that we've learned over many years of ads for cigarettes, sodas, and SUVs that we have to be careful when advertisers try to tell us what's good for us. So we should be appropriately skeptical when they start telling us what's good for the world.

Which brings us back to the Groupon ads. Were they being offensive by trivializing what many view to be important social causes? Or were they being refreshingly honest by saying, "Look, we know that these causes are important, but they really don't have anything to do with our business." And was the backlash because people really thought the commercials were harmful to the causes, or was it because they weren't toeing the line established by today's big businesses when it comes to "serious" socially conscious advertising? (Even though they were, albeit in a less conspicuous and more subversive way.)

If it's the latter, then it's worth pondering whether this social consciousness is really part of a new corporate culture, or if it's a fad that will fade away when young consumers get over their "do-gooder phase." If so, then maybe this ad wasn't too offensive, it was just too soon.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Good (Black) Friday

It's Thanksgiving vacation for Drink Moxie, which means that I'm visiting the folks at home, and as always tends to be the case when I'm here, I've spent a lot of time watching sports, parades, and other mainstream TV. This, along with the fact that my family (like most of America) lives in the land of big boxes and malls, means that I spent the past few days viewing countless ads for Black Friday doorbuster sales. Now that I'm stuffed with turkey and pie and ought to be going to bed, I decided instead to get on YouTube and find some of my favorites so that I could share them with you. Consider it my Thanksgiving gift. You're welcome.

For some brief background, Thanksgiving is the holiday when we remind ourselves that our European predecessors almost didn't make it when they tried to settle here in America, but that with some faith in Divine Providence and some help from the locals (which was not exactly repaid in kind), they persevered. So we gather with loved ones to feast on native foods like turkey, cranberries, pumpkin, and French's onion-crusted green bean casserole, things without which our predecessors would not have survived in the New World.

Now, of course, we take food for granted. But there is still one thing that we need and without which we would not survive as a nation – shopping. Therefore, Thanksgiving is the official beginning of a month-long period when we honor our American religion and worship unbridled consumerism. It's not unlike the month of Ramadan, except with fasting and prayer replaced by fervent purchasing of the latest and greatest products. This probably sounds cynical and sarcastic, but I assure you it isn't. Americans take gift-buying and gift-giving very seriously, and they should. Generosity is part of our nature, and consumerism is the cornerstone of our economy, and the holiday season is the perfect marriage of both.

But just like any religion, there are some people who take it a bit too far. This brings us to the Black Friday Doorbuster.

Our first and most subtle advertising offering comes from Sears. But what do you expect from a store that doesn't open until 7am?

There doesn't seem to be much to it, but it gives a sense of the conventional message for the holiday season: Buying gifts is your duty, and in order to be a good person, you must be the best gift-giver that you can be. The term "Power Santa" is particularly evocative (in more ways than one, I guess), conjuring images of Stallone or Schwarzenegger hauling around a sack full of goodies.

On the heroic gift-giver theme, Radio Shack ups the ante (as well as the opening time).

Doesn't that motivate you to get up for a 5:30am opening? Me either. But I am starting to feel a little inadequate that I'm not getting the best deals on the best products for the people who are important to me. If I were inclined to wait all night in line for a 5:30am sale, this spot would probably make me feel like I was being noble, and not insane.

And that brings us to Target's doorbuster ads. There have been a bunch in this series, I think I like this one the best. Damn, can she run fast in high heels!

This gives a bit of a different take. While there are many who believe strongly in the holiday sale, there are others who believe that such people are nutty as a Christmas fruitcake. (I probably don't need to remind anyone that people have died, literally, as a result of doorbusters.) As is typical of brands (not to mention entertainers and advertisers) who cater to consumers with a well-honed sense of irony, Target has no trouble poking fun at early-bird sale enthusiasts while plugging their own 4am doorbuster.

Finally, let's see the approach Walmart (which has recently rejuvenated its brand by going lowercase and removing the star between WAL and MART) has taken. Since there isn't a Walmart in my area (yes, I live in one of those areas) I can say this was truly a surprise to me. Not so much is remarkable about the composition of the ad itself, but they make it very clear how they're running their sale.

I will restate this for emphasis. Walmart will be having their big doorbuster sale starting at 5am. But because simply waiting in line for the sale is a little pointless, they will allow you to shop while you are waiting for the sale to begin. So in this promotional tact, it's not about being a hero, or being (ironically, self-consciously) obsessive, it's about being so dedicated to the act of shopping that you will shop all night in preparation for an early-morning shopping spree. It's a veritable ultramarathon of shopping, something that requires such a fervent, single-minded determination that can only be understood by the faithful and respected, or feared, by the rest of us.

As someone who will not be doing any shopping today (except maybe at the airport duty-free, if I get stuck with a long layover) I'm not exactly sure what advertising approach would appeal most to me. So what would you rather be? A hero coming to the rescue of your friends and family with armloads of the latest electronics? A self-acknowledged fanatic unabashedly indulging your holiday-themed mania? Or a dedicated, serious shopper who isn't about the image, but about the purity of the holiday shopping experience?

Let me know, and let the season begin! (But be careful out there.)

Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Manchurian Candidate

As we did two years ago, we at Drink Moxie were hoping to do a little pre-Election Day special looking at political ads. Little did we know that this year would be something of an embarrassment of riches in that area (with emphasis on the word embarrassment) thanks to the recent SCOTUS decision to finally back the long-repressed free speech rights of corporations (keep reaching for that rainbow, Texaco), the creative constitution of non-profit political organizations, and the anger that we, as voters, have been told we should be expressing toward our government leaders.

But with so many ads out there, and so many creative new ways to tear down the opposition (along with many old, non-creative ones), where to start? There's already been so much commentary and analysis already, is there really anything else to say?

Then, just this morning, I was treated to this.

For some background, Citizens Against Government Waste is a non-profit organization billing itself as "America's #1 Taxpayer Watchdog." (Check out their web page at "For every dollar donated, we save taxpayers $9,000." How can you argue with results like that?) Looking deeper you find that it's actually two non-profit organizations, a 501(c)(3) and a 501(c)(4) (lobbying) organization. According to its own financials, its funding comes about 60%/40% from individuals/corporations, and its spending is about 65% on "Public Outreach and Education," 12% on research, and a very trim 15% on fundraising and 8% on management. It was founded in 1984, and now purports to have over one million "members and supporters." It claims to be non-partisan, and has taken flack in the past for accepting contributions from big corporations and then lobbying the government on their behalf.

Let's first look at the obvious. This is probably the best produced political ad I've seen from a non-profit group. It came on during Meet the Press, where I'm normally used to seeing very slick, glossy commercials for big companies like ADM and GE, made to highlight that company's impressiveness, innovation, multiculturalism or compassion. It's an interesting class of commercial in that it's not selling anything, it's just a blatant attempt to raise the company's image in the eyes of the politicos that watch MTP. At first, I assumed this CAGW spot simply fell into the same category. Then I started to pay attention to what it was saying.

Now to the second, only slightly less obvious point. At least on a textual level, the ad is total nonsense. It portrays a Chinese classroom of the future, where a professor lectures about how the United States' embrace of higher taxes, deficit spending and government control have caused it to be overtaken by China. I assume most of our readers can see what's wrong with this picture so I'll run through it quickly. The United States, since the 70s, has prioritized keeping taxes low, investing less into public resources like education and community health, and weakening the government's ability to regulate private industry. China, on the other hand, has prioritized retaining strict government control over the economy and investing in the public resources needed to support rapid growth. The part about China owning most of our debt is more or less true, but has been the case since long before the "massive stimulus," and is the result of trying to keep taxes low while the price of government steadily increases (due to increasing costs of such things as employee health care, or fighting wars, or government waste, depending on your perspective).

As readers should know well by now, the text of the commercial is practically irrelevant. So what does the subtext say? A few things. First: "China is scary." The images of Mao (is he giving a Nazi salute on one of those banners?), the giant red flag at the end, all is meant to evoke the frightening conformity and totalitarianism that Cold War-raised Americans still fear instinctively. The laugh at the end is a bitter pill, reinforcing the idea that America's economic pain is nothing more than a joke to the foreigners halfway around the world who will reap the benefits.

Here we should take a moment to ask ourselves, is this commercial racist? People can disagree, but I'm not so sure. After all, the professor giving the talk, while somewhat menacing, doesn't sound too different than a successful American business leader giving a similar talk, and the students express the kind of hopeful attitude that we like to think our own students possess. While the overall setting is imposing, the characters themselves are not necessarily villainous. Maybe there is some hedging going on here, an attempt to appeal to the most xenophobic on the right while not alienating people who would be offended by an negative caricaturization of the Chinese. But could there be some jealousy at work here? Is the point that, come 2030, it should be our students sitting, silently focused, in a palatial lecture hall featuring the most modern technologies?

Now the other subtextual message: "Debt (caused by higher taxes and government spending) will cause the fall of the United States as a world power." It's a message heard often this campaign season (strangely, not heard so much during the George W. Bush administration, when both government and consumer debt ballooned to record levels), embraced by the Tea Party movement as a populist response to a seemingly out-of-touch government system that is probably corrupt, too.

The funny thing about this is that while it has gained traction as a populist message, the ad itself takes nothing like a populist tone. Where are the Ordinary Joes talking about how the economy is hurting their families and that the government had better stop wasting their tax dollars on things like health care and start doing something to help provide more jobs? Instead this makes a more nuanced argument, focusing not on the American perspective but on the overall macroeconomic picture and how it might change the global balance of power. As previously mentioned, the production value is much more corporate, less folksy, than one would expect of a political ad.

So what's it trying to do? Is the assumption that the MTP audience is more likely to be business leaders and intellectuals, people who are swayed by a more cerebral message? More importantly, is this a group that needs convincing? Most people in the "elites" have already made up their mind, whether they're business people who think that the government should stay out of the private sector, or social progressives who think that the government should play a stronger role in promoting equity and protecting citizens' rights to quality of life. Or is this somewhere in between, an opportunity to introduce populist Tea Partiers to the idea that there is a stronger, more academic argument behind the things that they believe in their gut to be true? If so, given that the right seems to have a strong anti-intellectual bent to it, will this work or will it backfire?

Also, will this have any impact at all on Tuesday's elections? Given that it's produced by a group opposed to financial waste, I would hate to think they spent all that money on production (assembling a futuristic lecture hall of Chinese-speaking actors can't be terribly cheap or easy) for not having any significant impact. But I'm not so sure. What do you think?

Whether you have an opinion on this or not, be sure to vote on the stuff that matters on Tuesday.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

I Want to Thank the Academy

Apologies once again, loyal readers. We intended this year to provide full coverage of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences Award for Best Commercial. We find it particularly important to do so, given that the Best Commercial Emmy is probably the most pointless of all Emmys, and not particularly important in the world of advertising, either. Due to its irrelevance, it doesn't earn a whole lot of coverage.

While it seemed like a good idea to review the nominees in advance of the awards ceremony (August 29), we failed to realize that this prize is actually announced as part of the Creative Arts Awards, which are held a week in advance of the major awards. So we already know who the winner is. If you don't already know who won, then before you read on, consider yourself SPOILER ALERTED.

Two years ago, I explored the question of why they present an artistic award for commercials in the first place. So I won't bother with that for the time being; let's just get to the non-winners.

First up is the perennial nominee, Coca-Cola (they won the Emmy last year), and their spot entitled "Finals" (campaign by Wieden + Kennedy ad agency; spot produced by Rattling Stick). It's also one of the nominees I never actually saw on TV. But with such quality filmmaking, you wouldn't want to risk overexposure.

Coke is pretty well-known for putting out spots that are visually compelling and have nothing to do with the product, or even with establishing any specific brand image. This one seems to fit that mold, except for the subtle (and perhaps unintentional) message that the caffeine in Coke provides such a powerful stimulant that just a whiff can arouse even the most sleep-deprived collegian. (Or maybe they're implying that simply the sound of a Coke bottle opening provides the necessary stimulus, good news for all the college students who drink Coke from glass bottles at their desks.)

Next up is a commercial I saw many times and quite like, it's for Nike and titled "Human Chain" (Wieden + Kennedy, again, is the agency and the production group is called Smuggler).

I can't really think of much to say about this, just good classic advertising. It's for an athletic shoe/apparel company, featuring a variety of athletes, catchy music, compelling visuals (including a clever and well-executed filmmaking gimmick), and a subtext that's inspirational without being sappy or offensive. And I like it a lot. Probably would have been my vote, but the Academy felt otherwise.

This next one was also aired pretty often (after premiering at the Super Bowl), and is perhaps one of the most popular of the nominees, at least among friends of Drink Moxie. The title is "Game" (campaign courtesy of BBDO New York, spot produced by MJZ).

Probably the best use of star-power among the nominees (Betty White and Abe Vigoda are so popular with the kids these days – and I wish I meant that ironically). It's well-made and worth a few chuckles, but essentially a one-trick pony. If it weren't for White and Vigoda, and there were just some anonymous elderly actors in their place, would it be anything? Are the cameos alone worthy of the nod? Apparently they are, but not enough to take the statuette. (The follow-up to this spot, featuring Aretha Franklin and Liza Minelli, is arguably funnier.)

The next one is for Audi, and again it's one I never actually saw on TV. I continue to wonder why some of these ads are produced – at significant expense (see last week's Mad Men) – and so limited in their release. (To be fair, they may run on channels that we at Drink Moxie don't watch that often.) Maybe some agencies find that the quality of an ad does not necessarily translate to repeat watchability. It could also be that a good number of these are 60-second spots, which don't fit well into normal programming schedules. Anyway, this one's called "Green Car" (from agency Venables Bell & Partners, produced by Hungry Man).

Smart and funny, but is it too soon to be making light of the contemporary environmental movement? Especially when the sale of hybrid cars is so closely attached to wealthy people's sense of self-importance at doing something good for the world? (I mean, you could ride the bus, but a bus pass just doesn't make your yuppie friends jealous enough -- plus, have you seen the people on the bus?) But I digress.

This next one's called "Anthem" (the agency is TBWA\Chiat\Day New York, which takes the Emmy for Best Use of Backslashes; it was also produced by MJZ). If it weren't for the subtle disclaimer at the beginning, it wouldn't be apparent until the end what the ad is even for.

Interesting that it more resembles the Coke or Nike spots than the previous MJZ one (the Snickers spot), and has a similar set of characteristics to the "Human Chain": compelling visuals, catchy music, and a simple, subtle, yet inspiring message. But is there something a little "different" (to use their word) about applying such a wholesome, uplifting message to an alcoholic product? What is it trying to imply? Were all these people drunk while making these elaborate messages? I don't really get it, but maybe that's why (or because) I don't drink vodka.

So we've seen all the losers, and now here's the one that emerged from the pack. And there's really no surprise. Not only is it an elegantly-composed, smart, funny, and altogether enjoyable piece of filmmaking, it has achieved that rare distinction of transcending a simple piece of advertising (I know, I know, advertising is never "simple") to become a true pop culture phenomenon, possibly in the same league as "Tastes Great/Less Filling," "Where's the Beef," and, well, the Old Spice Song. It has made a household name of Isaiah Mustafa (formerly "known" for a few TV bit roles and his career playing American pro football in Europe) and has "gone viral" with a web series. So let's all thank Wieden + Kennedy and MJZ (both with other nominees; this was the winning combination) for adding "The Man Your Man Could Smell Like" to the list of contemporary cultural icons.

There's more to this particular ad than meets the eye, of course, and I promise there will be future analysis of the historical evolution of men's fragrance advertising (the ongoing effort that we refer to as the "Old Spice Project") as well as a feature about fear of effeminization as a marketing tool in men's products. But for the time being, let's be superficial.

What makes it so good, at least as far as the Academy is concerned? Is it the sharp writing? Is it the surprise of witnessing the hidden talent (or not-so-hidden, according to some of our female readers) of a heretofore unsung star? Is it the brilliant one-shot cinematography? The fact is, we just don't know what they're looking for when they select a "best commercial" for the Emmy.

Commercials, as an art form, suffer from the same stigma that television used to (and in some ways still does). Because they are made to have market appeal (hence the word "commercial"), their artistic value is assumed to be compromised. Sort-of an "original sin" of creative advertising. So when the Academy of Television Arts (emphasis added) and "Sciences" (irony added) decides to honor a commercial, is it doing so because it stands out as an artistic endeavor, independent of its effectiveness as a marketing tool? Judging by the other nominees – essentially, short films with some limited paid air time, and in many cases little to do with the product or the brand – you might think so. But does the selection of this particular spot show that there is some consideration of the marketing effectiveness of the campaign? Or is it more a recognition of the fact that in today's world of entertainment, TV has to break into the ethersphere of web culture to be recognized as something truly great? Or was it simply the best of the bunch based on its merit as a standalone piece of filmmaking? Or can anyone even tell the difference among all these different perspectives any more?

Here's hoping that next year, they award the Best Commercial Emmy as part of the major awards ceremony, where it belongs (or doesn't, but it would be fun to see it there anyway). In the meantime, enjoy the telecast on Sunday (7pm, NBC). Maybe they'll show a few good commercials in there.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Desecration Nation

Yes I know, we here at Drink Moxie have got a little lazy lately, spending too much time on other (paying) pursuits and not enough time watching commercials on behalf of you, the people, and letting you know what they tell us about ourselves.

I wish I could promise that we'll be back with some regularity, but I'm afraid that would be disingenuous. However, we're back for the time being to perform an important public service. In honor of the recent 234th birthday of our nation, I decided it was time to institute an award for the company whose marketing has most desecrated our country. I was going to call it the Benedict Arnold Awards until I realized that name has been recently co-opted by a right-wing blogger (to discredit the Democratic Congressmen who supported health care reform). Some other famous desecrationists (Roseanne Barr) came to mind, but I think that given this is a media award, one name rises to the top. So I give you the first ever (to my knowledge) Larry Flynt Awards. (If you're too young, or haven't seen the movie, look it up.)

The idea for this award came from two commercials that I recently saw, that you have probably seen as well if, like me, you've been watching any or all of the sporting events saturating the airwaves recently. While it might seem obvious that patriotism sells products, especially around July 4, I found that there are rare examples of it being done in an egregious way. Of course there are political ads that go too far, and countless car dealership ads featuring Uncle Sam or Barack Obama impersonators, but when it comes to nationwide mainstream advertising, usually the patriotism is a bit more subdued. For the requisite historical perspective, here's a commercial I found for RC Cola from the 90s:

Heavy on the "Go USA!" but otherwise not very remarkable.

Also in the not-nominated category is this commercial, that was originally made a few years back but has been running recently:

That one may seem only tangentially related to the subject matter. However, I include it because this next one, our first actual nominee, seems to have been made in direct response. (Footnote: online news has taught me that the "Here we go" campaign, by a firm called Cannonball, has replaced the "Drinkability" campaign, previously discussed, by DDB Chicago, which apparently was not working terribly well. I wonder why?)

Funny that Sam Adams seems not to have been invited to this party.

Our second and final nominee is this one, by Wieden + Kennedy.

Considering our nominees, which one does a better job at desecrating America? It might seem obvious at first, but take a moment to consider the evidence. The second spot seems more intelligently and tastefully produced (ignoring the fact that it uses music clearly evocative of Ken Burns' The Civil War in a setting meant to represent the Revolutionary War). But is it really more tasteful, or more realistic? What it actually does is perpetuate the idea that the Revolutionary War was a heroic victory of freedom over tyranny, guided by the hand of a godlike military genius, and not a bloody conflict that saw the deaths of many young and poor Americans, British and Germans, in which George Washington was frequently outmatched and out-strategized, and which was resolved as much as a result of geopolitical tensions as military prowess. It also ignores that fact that many of the patriots fighting for "freedom" were actually fighting for their right to retain slaves, but I don't necessarily fault them for leaving that out.

The first commercial, on the other hand, portrays the politicians who founded our nation as a bunch of fun-loving guys who liked to drink beer, which, of course, they mostly were (though they were decidedly not drinking Bud Light). Also, the first commercial is clearly meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek, while the second has an air of seriousness about it, as if they are really trying to associate the long struggle for American independence with an industry that is now best known for bringing our nation's economy to its knees. The worst thing that the first commercial has against it is that it is atrociously un-funny, which is not to be ignored. The second is much more enjoyable to watch, if one doesn't take it seriously.

So I leave it for you to decide, readers: Who should take the Flyntie?

And while you're thinking about it, ponder this: Is it just a coincidence that we're seeing these two commercials at this point in our history? Will it lead to a trend of more "patriotic" commercials that are at the same time historically-themed but historically-ignorant? Is the New Tea Party, also regarded as suffering from historical schizophrenia, starting to have an influence on mainstream advertising?

As always, we'll have to keep watching the airwaves to find out ...

Monday, June 15, 2009

Buzz, Light Beer

Happy summer, readers. We here at Drink Moxie are thrilled about the season because it's the perfect time to crack open a cold one. A cold Moxie, perhaps? Well yes, but occasionally something more potent is in order.

The Drink Moxie staff has a hard time saying no to a frosty brew, and Americans in general are no different. As I'm sure many of you know, despite the current tough economic times, beer sales are going strong. Not alcohol sales, mind you. Just beer. We don't seem to enjoy getting drunk on anything else.

Unfortunately, we tend to be a little out of touch with mainstream America when it comes to the type of beers we drink. We like the fancy stuff. Not talking about the so-called "superpremium" brands of Michelob and Rolling Rock mentioned in the above article. We're talking about imports, microbrews, Belgian-styles. Stuff that comes in a curvy glass with a stem. But in America, most people drink the big three. That would be Bud, Miller and Coors, right? Well, kind-of. Apparently here in the land of Big Cars, Big Houses, and Big People, we prefer the light variety of beers. It's probably the only "light" thing that we prefer. About half of beer sold in the US is light, and Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light combined account for about 60% of light beer sales.

So what makes these three so popular with the American drunken public? It could have something to do with the advertising, but it's probably more about the quality of the product. Just kidding. Let's take a look at what their ad agencies are doing.

Miller Lite

We start with the first, the granddaddy of the mass-marketed light beers. Back in the 1970s and 1980s, Miller Lite had it all. A best-selling product. A star-studded advertising campaign. A phonetic, easy-to-spell brand name. Not to mention one of the most brilliant and enduring taglines in advertising history: "Tastes Great, Less Filling" (thanks to McCann-Erickson). This was so ingrained into the popular culture that it took on a life of its own. One of my most vivid memories as a child is going down to the minor league ballpark and joining in as one half of the grandstand would shout "Tastes great!" and my responsibility was to join in the retort, "Less filling!" Aw, now I'm getting nostalgic. Let's take a look.

The campaign has changed many times over the years, but nothing as noteworthy has evolved, with the unfortunate exception of "Man Laws." They don't seem to be able to match the elegance and simplicity of the original. Just over the past two years, Miller has used Crispin Porter and Bogusky, replaced them with Bartle Bogle Hegarty, and replaced them in turn with DraftFCB out of Chicago. I'm not sure who's responsible for what's running now, but it seems like they're making a return to the "tastes great" approach (indeed, the commercial I just saw plays with the tagline, "Taste Greatness"). Moreover, since today's beer consumer is presumably more discerning, it's not sufficient just to say it tastes great. The audience seems to deserve a more elaborate explanation. Here's one approach.

Hm, I never thought about how "can taste" was affecting my beer, but now that I know, I'm glad the problem's been fixed. So our beer is no longer aluminum-contaminated, which is nice, but what about the beer itself? What makes it taste so, well, great? Here's a medley of more recent commercials, feel free to not watch all of them.

Ah, of course, it's the triple-hops brewing process. Hops, as beer connoisseurs know, is the fragrant plant that gives all beer its distinctive flavor. Odd that it took so long for brewers to figure out that if beer tastes good because of hops, then beer will taste great if you "hop" it three times. A cupcake tastes better with three layers of icing, doesn't it? Good thing the master brewers at Miller are on top of things.

Will this more sophisticated, dare I say intellectual approach put Miller Lite back on top of the light beer game? Where's the competition?

Coors Light

Now we look to the kid brother, which (as it is owned by the same company as Miller) is also managed by DraftFCB. Its ad history is less memorable to me, I vaguely remember times when Pete Coors explained where the water comes from and, of course, the embarrassing cultural phenomenon of "... and twins." What are they up to now?

This "cold-activated" idea seems to really have legs, since they recently introduced a cold-activated can as well. It's all part of Coors Light's guarantee that they have the coldest beer on the market, as they like to say, "Cold as the Rockies."

Now, people who are into "thinking" might wonder, doesn't the coldness of the beer really have nothing to do with the beer itself, but rather the medium within which the beer is stored? I'm no scientist, but I would have to imagine that if I put a Coors Light in the microwave and turned it on for three minutes, it would not be the "world's coldest beer." But oh, right, then the label wouldn't turn blue, and I would know not to drink it. Dodged a bullet there.

Perhaps I'm being glib, but as the linked article shows, the approach seems to be working as little Coors is starting to catch up to big brother Miller. It's as if the American consumer is saying, "screw taste, I just want my beer cold." That's all we ask for. Or is it? Could we possibly ask for less?

Bud Light

We now turn to the king, Bud Light, the top selling beer in America. Their campaign over the years has produced some funny stuff, up to and including its recent Emmy-winning "Swear Jar" spot. But overall it's been pretty generic, including the rather derivative and wordy slogan "Won't fill you up and never lets you down." The campaign they are currently running was started by RSCG out of Chicago, but was recently taken over by our friends at DDB. Let's take a gander.

If being generic is what has put Bud Light at the top, I don't see how this campaign could possibly fail. It takes the idea of "lowest common denominator" and somehow brings it a notch lower. Does it taste good? Nope. Is it cold? Well, not necessarily. But it's drinkable. They are literally telling us that we should drink it because it is technically possible to do so. There's really not much else to say.

So the choice is yours, readers. How do you like your light beer? Tasty? Cold? Or just drinkable? Because you can't have all three. Of course, these three brands are really just reinforcing what most of us know about light beer, which is that it's weak, and it will get you buzzed. The creative team's job is to take that message and re-brand it, which they've successfully been able to do, from "Tastes Great, Less Filling" to "Drinkability," because we Americans just can't seem to get enough of the stuff, even when we can't afford anything else.

And now, you can get it with the taste of lime! But that's a discussion for another time.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Fast Friends, Fast Food

This is one of those rare times when we venture out of the world of television to look at what other methods are being employed by advertisers to teach us about their products, and about ourselves.

As our readers know, we here at Drink Moxie are always catching trends at the height of their popularity. Today, we talk about the recent promotion, only a few months old now, from the folks at Burger King by way of Crispin Porter & Bogusky, offering a free Whopper for deleting ten of your Facebook friends (as described in this New York Times article).

As Douglas Quenqua explains, the promotion was brought to a premature conclusion when it was determined that the promotion was in violation of Facebook's policies – specifically, the policy by which users can remove a "friend" without notifying the "friend" who is being unilaterally rejected. But the more interesting question is whether the well-meaning folks at BK/CP&B were breaching our social mores in some greater way, stretching the unwritten social contract between advertiser and advertisee a little too far for comfort.

There's always a level of risk when a brand implicitly touts itself as "the official brand of something," but it can certainly be an effective approach if done smartly. We showed in a previous post how Dunkin' Donuts has successfully, but a little ironically, branded itself as the official sponsor of such everyday annoyances as being late to work and walking across hot sand. The associations aren't necessarily positive, but they're things we can relate to. Some commercials have taken it even further, such as DirecTV, which gave a somewhat sardonic demonstration of how their product can be useful during a bank robbery. (It's a nice spot, featuring Dule Hill and Alan Tudyk – but we're not here to rate commercials). The spot doesn't rub people the wrong way, partly because most people have not been a hostage in a bank robbery and thus can see the humor in it. People who have been taken hostage in a bank robbery might not find the spot so amusing.

Can it go too far? Of course. You wouldn't want your brand to be something people associate with beating one's wife, destructive wildfires, or getting cancer – all things that many people have to cope with on a regular basis, but not anything that people would feel comfortable associating with a consumer product. Between being late for work and getting cancer, there is a gray area.

So where does deleting friends from Facebook fall? Clearly it's something that people sometimes have to do. Whether or not people enjoy doing it is a matter of taste and personality. Now, as far as advertising goes, we all know that the goal is to give the impression that a brand or a product will fit comfortably into the lifestyle they enjoy, or possibly the lifestyle they wish they had. Promotions, in that sense, are typically about rewarding people for something they might already enjoy doing, in other to get people to associate their product with that activity. Hardly ever is a promotion about getting consumers to do something they don't want to do in exchange for the reward. So the CP&B folks were presumably looking, with this promotion, to reach out to customers who already feel that they have too many Facebook friends and would maybe like to have fewer of them. How many people fit this demographic? And are those people now more likely to eat more Whoppers?

BK even takes it a step further as they imagine themselves as social do-gooders pushing back against the over-inundation of personal information sharing that has has been born of the Facebook era. As BK's vice president puts it in the article:

Do you really want to have all these people knowing what you’re up to and what you’re interested in? We wanted to be part of that conversation and part of that solution, and ‘Whopper Sacrifice’ was born.

It's not very unusual, in this day and age, for a company to associate itself with a social movement (note the RED campaign, which we may explore later). Obviously you have to pick your causes carefully. Climate change, AIDS, both are problems that people would love to be the solution to, and if it gets them a stylish cell phone or t-shirt, then you better believe people will get behind it. Fighting the erosion of personal privacy via social networking websites for a hamburger? Hmm. Since people themselves seem to be driving the trend (I suppose all social problems are people-driven, but in this case it seems more willingly people-driven than others), it may be hard to get people behind the cause. But maybe that's the whole point – it's more of an ironic statement than a real social mission, when you consider the dubiousness of the cause together with the triviality of the reward.

This irony might be lost on some people. Those who "get it" may laugh and gain a new appreciation for Burger King as being hip to modern trends and having a sophisticated sense of humor about them. Other people – that is, other Facebook users, who are presumably not completely unsavvy – may take it more seriously. I can imagine people being troubled by the moral quandary between maintaining a manageable level of privacy and considering the feelings of people who have some real emotional investment in a "friend" connection. I can also imagine that people who are grappling with this question may find it rather insulting for a brand to suggest that dangling a free hamburger would make the quandary easier to resolve. You could label these people as oversensitive, but the official action taken by Facebook suggests that it's not a trivial issue for many of its users.

For a brand, I suppose the alternative to getting mixed up in these social issues is to just show things that are either so innocent or so absurd that they stay clear of any moral gray areas, and do not cause the customer to question their own sense of social propriety. This seems to be the competition's approach.

Happy Lent, everyone!