FROM TALKING lizards to farting horses to mud-wrestling blondes, Super Bowl beer commercials have traditionally stooped to the lowest common denominator to pump up existing brands. For years, we could depend on delightfully dopey punch lines to liven dull games.
Suddenly, though, Anheuser Busch Inbev is taking the high road - at least when it comes to unveiling new products.
Last year, it was Bud Light Platinum that got the big send-off with a classy techno ad extolling the brand's "top shelf taste."
This year, the corporation is putting some of its precious Super Bowl bucks behind two new brands: Budweiser Black Crown, which gets the first commercial slot after kickoff, and Beck's Sapphire.
No doofus frat boys in these commercials. From the early look of things, the spots for Black Crown and Sapphire are as stylish and refined as a Lexus ad. Think little black dress with stiletto pumps.
I guess we shouldn't be surprised by the upscale tone - not when ABI is apparently naming its new products after those double-secret American Express cards they hand out to Donald Trump.
But in the name of holy testosterone, this is the Super Bowl, not "Project Runway."
So I'm scratching my head to figure out exactly whom ABI is trying to reach with these commercials.
Corporate execs have said the new brands are aimed at "a more sophisticated crowd and occasion." That sounds like the club scene to me - but that's an awful thin segment for such a huge ad buy. And, really, does ABI think clubbers are going to give up their Patron?
Other experts say it's another ABI attempt to glom onto the surging craft beer market. I don't buy that, either, because no beer with the word "Budweiser" in its name will ever be regarded as anything other than corporate liquid.
So who's the target of these ads?
Grant Pace says it's the entire Super Bowl audience.
Pace oughta know: He's the exec who's credited with writing possibly the greatest of all Super Bowl commercials, the original Bud Bowl series.
Now executive creative director at the Conover Tuttle Pace agency in Boston, Pace told me in a lengthy email (full text below) that beer advertising is no longer simply about selling. It's about driving conversation.
"Sarah Palin drove conversation, love her or hate her," he writes. "When she stopped being interesting to both sides, she faded. Same with beer. They're fine if you love the new products or hate them, but don't be quiet about them. Don't say that Budweiser isn't doing stuff, isn't innovating, isn't sitting still.
"How does this move product? It's more sophisticated than just 24-pack suitcases walking out the door. It gives drinkers permission to try something new, but stay under the brand umbrella. Most of those beer drinkers will probably come back to the core brand, but they can talk about the trip. And they don't have to feel like a bumpkin for only having drunk one brand since high school. They can say, 'Yeah, I've tried a few different styles, but I like . . . '
"Which is enough to get your smart--- brother-in-law to shut the hell up."
If that's all it's about, let me save you some trouble. Here's what you can tell him:
Budweiser Black Crown
1. Its fuller flavor is the product of a project in which the company's 12 brewmasters created experimental versions of Budweiser. The company selected this one after samples were taste-tested at the huge Made in America concert with Jay-Z on the Ben Franklin Parkway last Labor Day weekend.
2. Not as sweet as original, it's a bit darker and actually quite flavorful. If he'd devoted his efforts to brewing this instead of Michelob Ultra, August Busch IV would never have lost his company to the Brazilians.
1. The press release says the beer gets its smoothness from "rare" German Saphir hops. But Saphir hops are hardly rare (they're in Beck's Dark), and they're used mainly for their aroma, not body.
2. The former pride of Bremen, Germany (now made in good ol' St. Louis), is tasteless, watered-down faux Euro-swill. But the black bottle looks really cool.
Grant Pace is partner and executive creative director at Boston-based Conover Tuttle Pace. He is credited with writing the original "Bud Bowl" series for Anheuser-Busch's 1989 Super Bowl XXIII campaign.
The problem with beer in the 21st century: People are kind of done with single-product brands that remain static for decades. Your brand now needs to be an ecosystem of old and new products that drive interest and discussion, not just a familiar thing sitting on a shelf. In the beer market traditionally, this was all done at the point of sale. Budweiser had Bud cans, Bud tallboys, shortys, longnecks, twelve-packs, suitcases, then repeat with Lite and Ice and on and on. You could dominate the physical and visual space of the beer aisle of the grocery store (or the "packie" as we say here in Massachusetts). And by dominating that aisle you controlled the real estate. The craft brewers could squeeze a sixpack in here or there but that was it. It was like an old, crowded strip mall with a cool, used record store squeezed in between pizza shop and name-brand storefronts. What's going on there?
In that way the big beer companies lost the conversation. If you wanted to discuss, talk about or mention beer all the mindshare was in the microbrews. And meanwhile, young people migrated to cocktails and the healthy set over to wine. Both not coincidentally offer not only an endless variety of styles and flavors, but also conversation, lore and positions and sides to take. Fruity or dry? Chilled? Dirty or neat? Ice? Soda? Olive, onion or capers? The discussion is endless. And then you have the traditional American beer market... not exactly lighting up social media, is it?
The big breweries, in my guess, are not trying to sell product as much as are trying to drive conversation. That's the trick. Sarah Palin drove conversation, love her or hate her. When she stopped being interesting to both sides she faded. Same with beer, they're fine if you love the new products or hate them, but don't be quiet about them. Don't say that Budweiser isn't doing stuff, isn't innovating, isn't sitting still.
How does this move product? It's more sophisticated than just 24-pack suitcases walking out the door. It gives drinkers permission to try something new, but stay under the brand umbrella. Most of those beer drinkers will probably come back to the core brand, but they can talk about the trip. And they don't have to feel like a bumpkin for only having drunk one brand since high school. They can say, "Yeah, I've tried a few different styles, but I like..." Which is enough to get your smartass brother-in-law to shut the hell up. With so much choice in every category these days, giving even your loyalists the permission to experiment, yet still within the walled "beergarden" of the traditional and familiar, is no bad idea.
But, mostly, it gives people things to talk about, and today that's spinning gold. Or platinum or sapphires or whatever.