The DEFEND Cleveland Show

“Wassup” with Beer these days?

Reading this harrowing piece on the Anheuser-Busch dynasty reminded me of something I’ve noticed lately: beer advertisements are not what they used to be.

I’m not asking, “hey, remember how funny those Budweiser bullfrogs were? Those Budweiser bullfrogs were really funny.” They weren’t funny. The towering success of that campaign, like NASCAR, simply doesn’t make sense to me. And, like NASCAR, beer has gotten a tremendous benefit of my doubt. I have both the Keystone Light and Atlanta Motor Speedway hats to prove it.

According to that Businessweek piece, August Busch IV was responsible for those bullfrog ads, as well as what is possibly the most successful beer ad of all time: the “Wassup” guys.

The success of this ad was unprecedented. The catchphrase became ubiquitous in American culture. Even The  [UK] Office’s über-schmuck Gareth thought it was hilarious, and he was English. He drank cider. And keep in mind that this was 2001, pre-InBev takeover. It was a Superbowl ad. They don’t have the Superbowl in England. He may as well have been wearing my NASCAR hat. That ad was literally everywhere.

For the purposes of this argument, the “Wassup” ad codifies the Old Guard of beer advertisements, for the following reasons:

The ad features regular-ass dudes, in regular-ass clothes, watching sports and drinking beer.

1. Everyone in the ad is doing the same, dumb thing.

2. The ad is racially homogeneous.

This is what beer advertising used to be about: Dudes Like Me hang out in groups, and open domestic beers. Fun happens. A train full of beer crashes into the living room, and nobody seems to worry about the safety of its crew, or the unlikely route that brought it from the Arctic to Anytown, USA. Sometimes, hot ladies in those weird high-waisted bikini bottoms show up. Everybody’s smiling. Most of the time, there’s sports. Either way, the lives of Dudes Like Me are improved immediately and irrevocably by their choice in beer.

So, to keep the Dudes Like Me true to form, beer companies didn’t overreach. Regular-ass dudes don’t hang out at the New York Yacht Club. They don’t wear tuxedos. They wear cargo shorts, at home. So beer companies wrote ads where funny and extraordinary things happened to regular-ass dudes. My cargo pockets have exploded with cash! My house is overrun with consequence-free tail!  Advertising promises a better life. But beer advertising promised a better life within the confines of a regular, American life.

In the “Wassup” ad, no trains or women were necessary. The Dudes Like Me enjoyed the comfort and delight of acceptance, because they all share this hilarious inside joke. They are a group, because they speak the same language. Catchphrases are the opposite of inside jokes, yet they’re successful because, like inside jokes, they play upon our most basic social instincts. Catchphrases are inside jokes that everybody gets, at least eventually. “Wassup” wasn’t an inside joke (see: Gareth), but it felt like one, and we came to associate that feeling of joy and acceptance with Budweiser beer.

Add to the mix that in most beer commercials, blacks hang out with blacks and whites with whites, and you’ve got a great recipe for marketing by social identity: you and your friends are who you are, and that’s great. I had forgotten the tagline for the “Wassup” ad: Budweiser. True.

Lately, though, there’s been a fundamental shift in the tone of beer commercials. Something different seems to be at stake.

They’ve become more individualist, and more aspirational. Beer commercials seem less aimed at our joyous mediocrity or our tendency to band together.

Exhibit A:

This is, first of all, a tremendously funny ad. It’s inspired a new genus of internet meme, and come close to making Dos Equis, the beer equivalent of an Applebee’s appetizer, close to relevant. (At college in New Mexico, we used to drink Tecate over Dos Equis–and I’m pretty sure Tecate is made from old Taco Bell tortillas.)

But this ad couldn’t be more different from “Wassup.” He’s solitary and preposterously classy. He’s only vaguely ethnic, like a Bond villain, so instead of appealing to racial identity, he purposely avoids it. And he never, ever does anything dumb.

Exhibit B:

This ad follows more-or-less the same formula, though with considerably less creativity (the full music video shows just how much the whole campaign is just the wretched burlesque of a Wes Anderson movie). Still a super-classy loner, still vaguely ethnic (though in that strange multi-market European way, like people in Mentos commercials), still frolicking in impossibly-high-society. No cargo shorts. No backyard pools. No Dudes Like Me, just One Dude I’ll Never Be.

So what’s the deal? Why am I suddenly reaching for a cheap beer to express my individual virtue rather than dig on the mediocrity and whiteness that I share with all my mediocre white friends?

It gets better. SABMiller, in selling the Noblest of Domestic Beers, asks us to relate both to the group of dumb guys and the stylish individual:

I love this ad because it reflects the rich paradox of American life. An American is a synthesis of the socially responsible and the self-actualized. The Citizen Cowboy. That’s why baseball is quintessentially American, and could only come from America: it’s all about one guy, and all about all the other guys at the same time. There’s no I in team? Bullshit, this is America. I’ll put I wherever the fuck I want. My beer ads are really starting to dial me in.

They’re even learning to express my half-baked Tea Party populism, brilliantly:

But take heed, High Life Bolsheviks! Close to thirty years ago, in what is possibly the best beer advertisement of all time, Miller warned us where all that unchecked rage at the bourgeoisie, and where all that groupthink, led those poor, hilarious Russians:

…so it goes. When we’re anti-communist, so are our beer commercials. When our middle class is booming, we celebrate middle class values. When our middle class collapses, and we all start reading Ayn Rand again, we want to drink John Gault’s beer. And when we realize that there is no John Gault, we crack a High Life longneck and shit on rich people. These are beer commercials, after all: how aspirational can they really be?


-Will Hollingsworth

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Posted by on Jul 19 2011. Filed under Featured, Meta World Peace. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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