The Super Bowl's Riskiest Ad

Is Budweiser laughing with or at Millennials?


In November, The Wall Street Journal published "Bud Crowded Out By Craft Beer Craze," reporting that among beer drinkers 27 and younger, just 44 percent had tried Budweiser beer. Among all drinkers, "Budweiser volumes have declined in the U.S. for 25 years, from its nearly 50-million-barrel peak in 1988 to 16 million barrels last year," the article noted. "The company has decided that persuading 21-to-27-year-olds to grab a Bud is the best chance to stop the free-fall. After years of developing advertising and marketing that appeals to all ages, AB InBev plans to concentrate future Budweiser promotions exclusively on that age bracket."

But watching Budweiser's Super Bowl commercials on Sunday, I saw an advertisement far more likely to appeal to my grandfather or father than a typical person of my generation (I'm 35), and even less likely to appeal to Millennials.

Quoting Brian Perkins, AB InBev's vice-president of marketing, The Wall Street Journal noted, "Budweiser marketing will become distinctly un-Budlike. Next year, Mr. Perkins said the brand, which sponsors sports such as Major League Baseball and Nascar, plans to sponsor food festivals because 50% of 21- to 27-year-olds identify themselves as 'foodies.'" Am I wrong to see, in its Super Bowl ad, a company trying to sell beer by casting Millennial foodies as a pretentious out-group to be mocked?

The text:

Proudly a macro beer. It's not brewed to be fussed over. It's brewed for a crisp, smooth finish. This is the only beer Beechwood aged since 1876. There's only one Budweiser. It's brewed for drinking. Not dissecting. The people who drink our beer are people who like drinking beer. To drink beer brewed the hard way. Let them sip their pumpkin peach ale. We'll be brewing us some golden suds. This is the famous Budweiser beer. This bud's for you.

There's no denying that Budweiser is "macro," and by itself, the attempt to own that characteristic, to spin it as a positive, could be effective (even if there's no actual reason to see "macro" as good). There are, moreover, projects like Stuff White People Like and shows like Portlandia that successfully poke fun at cultural attributes shared by large swaths of the intended audience. If Perkins' remarks to Ad Age are any indication, Bud was trying for good-natured mockery. "Occasionally we do have a little bit of fun with some of the overwrought pretentiousness that exists in some small corners of the beer landscape that is around beer snobbery," he said. "That is the antithesis of what Budweiser is all about."

Then again, there's a degree of snobbery in the words that appear in small print on every Budweiser bottle: "We know of no brand produced by any other brewer which costs so much to brew and age." And there's also a mass market, "real America" brand association that makes it tough for Bud to seem as if it is laughing with rather than at craft-loving young people (though if the ad intended to laugh at them to consolidate the loyalty of their elders, or to write off foodies as unconvertible to Bud and concentrate on the smaller subset of Millennials who feel antagonism toward that subculture, the commercial makes more sense).

This isn't to denigrate the advertising people at Budweiser, who are perhaps in an impossible position. For a guy like my grandfather, who has grown used to the taste of Bud over decades, there's a familiar appeal to the brand, which he prefers. For a 21-year-old walking into a bar for the first time and confronting a dozen beers on tap, the idea that even one in twelve will actively prefer Bud based on taste is fantastical. The diversity of beers available guarantees a fragmented market, and for those who like "Budweiser-type" beers, there are lots of those too.

Thus the impulse to sell Budweiser as macro, unfussy, smooth. But isn't Coors macro? Aren't Tecate and Pabst unfussy? Doesn't Pacifico have a crisp, smooth finish? There's the "beechwood aging"... but only those fussy, dissecting types would care about that. Budweiser is a beer that is losing more of its mass market with every year. It has reacted with a commercial that tries to pitch mass market as its niche. My guess is that they'd have done better to stick with Clydesdales and puppies.

The company did aim for a younger audience with its Bud Light spot, where a young man out drinking with friends is asked if he'd be up for anything that happened if given a free beer. The bartender hands him a Bud Light, and shortly thereafter he is brought into a party of cheering peers and put into a life-sized game of Pac-Man:

People got an explanation for the spot:

Nick Kelly, spokesperson for Bud Light, says there's a good reason they chose a real person instead of hiring an actor for the job. "We found out that Millennials value experience more than tangible goods," he says. "So all year long we've created these "Up for Whatever" experiences for our real consumers who are drinking Bud Light. It's really just finding people at drinking events, and if they're drinking Bud Light, rewarding them with awesome experiences." (Some other experiences include meeting football players, doing the coin-toss at games, and riding with DJs to their sets at dance music festivals.)  

But how did they come up with life size Pac-Man? "That game really just brings that sentimental moment from when you used to play it," Kelly says. "It transcends the demographics. I played it when I was a kid, and it's also appealing to people in their 40s, 50s, 60s. You may never have even played it, but everyone knows what it is."

The Bud Light commercial managed to reach a demographic with an appeal that played on nostalgia for something that even people outside of the target would find appealing. The Budweiser spot defined its target audience as a negative–beer drinkers who don't fuss or sip or dissect like those other snobby beer drinkers. The former approach would seem better for retaining macro appeal. And if I had to bet on the stronger brand a decade from now I'd choose Bud Light, which need not compete with craft beer on taste or complexity so long as it wins on calories.