We’re Here, We’re Queer and Now We’re Drinking Beer!
Posted by Bob Skilnik on June 8, 2007
If you head over to eBay, you might run across someone selling VHS tapes or DVDs of old black & white beer commercials from the ’40s and ’50s. I’m a sucker for these video bits of breweriana, a reflection, I think, of simpler days. I’ve managed to put together a nice collection of them. One beer commercial in particular sticks in my head. With a pair of disembodied hands pouring a cold beer into a frosty pilsner glass, the rugged voices of men can be heard singing, “A beer is a beer is a beer is a beer…until you’ve tasted Hamm’s!”
It’s a great little ditty—simple, direct, with an underlying message that beer is a man’s drink, made by men, for men. Fast forward to the new millennium, when the idea of same sex marriages are being forced down our throats and public television has produced a children’s show that espouses two-mommy households.
Queer is in. “Will & Grace” was a long-running bona fide hit. NBC moved “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy” from its cable network Bravo to prime time because it was trying to attract a larger gay audience than execs figured cable could. In a complete turnaround from the “Ellen” fiasco of a few years back, advertisers are now falling all over themselves to sponsor these gay-themed programs—certainly a different attitude than the simpler days of black & white TV.
Well, we men still have our beer commercials, ya know, buxom beauties tearing off their clothes as they tumble into a conveniently located reflecting pool while they argue over whether or not their beers are “Less filling” or “Taste great!” Or so I thought until the Ottawa Sun reported that a Quebec firm marketing a beer called “Pride,” resplendent with a rainbow-colored label, was being sued by another gay group based in Toronto called Pride Toronto for using the word “Pride.”
Personally, I don’t care who won that legal battle (someone took it in the shorts), but all I kept on thinking when I read this story was “queer beer?” My God—what will they think of next? From what I understand, it’s really not a bad beer; holds a big head and goes down easy <rimshot>. But as I researched this story a bit further, I came to a sobering reality. Breweries and their ad agencies discovered decades ago something that other TV advertisers have been slow to recognize—gays are one of today’s most affluent consumer groups. The Miller Brewing Company was one of the first brewers to target the gay market back in the 1970s in the San Francisco area by advertising in local gay publications. The ads were sexually neutral in their tone, taken right from the pages of mainstream publications, but indicated that the Milwaukee brewery was willing to court this once-ignored but lucrative demographic.
Anheuser-Busch took a big step in also recognizing the potential of this niche market in Chicago back in 1987 when it started running ads in The Windy City Times, a local gay newspaper. At the time, a representative from the Lowe Marschalk ad agency questioned the wisdom of A-B advertising in gay outlets, opining that to do so would damage the beer’s macho image. Lowe Marschalk represented the Stroh beer brand at the time. Of course, A-B’s wisdom proved itself out: the Stroh Brewing Company closed in 1999 but Anheuser-Busch continues to dominate the U.S. beer market.
Advertising beer in gay-oriented publications with sexually neutral ads— ads that could also be run in the Wall Street Journal or Forbes magazine without raising eyebrows—was a first step for America’s breweries in catching the attention of the gay community. However, the next step—sponsorship of events like a big city Gay Pride Parade, or even hinting at a homosexual relationship between beer drinkers in straight print or commercial ads— is another story.
And this is where a possible controversy arises: Are American breweries risking the loss of heterosexual beer drinkers who don’t want to see their favorite beer in a commercial with two guys, for instance, holding hands while chugging down a BudMillerCoors?
In a 1988 Wall Street Journal article, a Miller spokesman begged off on the idea of the brewery concentrating heavily on the gay market. Miller is now, however, open in its marketing to gays. In a sense, old Frederick Miller’s brewery has come out of the closet, but initially tripped over the threshold when it did. As recently as 1999, the brewery ran into problems with this approach.
There was little question what group of beer drinkers Miller was targeting with its ad featuring a shirtless muscle man. The spot was supposed to air on a cable program in San Francisco and feature a “Barechest Men” calendar for sale, the proceeds going to a local AIDS-funding group. The combination of Miller sponsoring a photo calendar of beefy hunks and indirectly raising funds for AIDS victims was too much for some straights in the San Francisco community. After loads of protests by conservative groups, the thirty-second ad was pulled. A Miller spokesman tried to lay the idea for the commercial at the feet of a local advertising agency and not at the door of the brewery’s Milwaukee headquarters. The idea of courting gays while possibly disenfranchising the much larger market of straight beer drinkers made Miller back off from openly advertising gay-themed commercials and ads for the next few years, except in gay publications.
However, maybe in a reflection of political correctness (and an almost stagnant growth in beer sales), a Miller commercial from 2001 had two women sitting at a bar, obviously on the prowl for some man-meat. In the TV spot, one girl has the bartender send a beer over to a man sitting alone. As he starts to acknowledge the drink, the women spot a better looking man behind him and have the female bartender go back and grab the beer from the poor slob who was about to sip on the bottle. “Sorry chief!” she says as she pulls the bottle from his hand and passes it over to the girls’ newest interest. Seconds later, another hunk joins the single man who is enjoying his free beer. “Jackpot!” one of the girls says, but she almost falls off her stool when the two men hold hands. “Well,” one girl declares, “at least he’s not married.”
One of the edgiest beer commercials featured Sam Adams Boston Lager, a brew that I frequently enjoy. The spot opened with a man and woman seen breathing heavily in a bed. The guy looks like he’s about to lift off the launching pad when the woman pushes him away, hands him a Sam and explains, “I’m a transsexual,” making a snip-snip movement with her fingers while a cat yelps in the background. “My name used to be Phil,” she continues while the guy laughs nervously. Once she points to her/his Adam’s apple, the guy takes a long swig from his beer and says, “Wow! That tastes great.” A moment later, he seems to have forgotten what had just transpired, so good-tasting is Sam Adams Boston Lager. “What was I saying?” he says as he turns back to her. “You were about to nibble on my ear,” she moans and he climbs back into the sack with her. I understand the idea of market segmentation in advertising, especially in beer advertising, but really, is it necessary to work the transsexual market right under our noses? What’s next, the S & M crowd?
The brewers of Bud, Guinness, Amstel, Moosehead, Coors, Carlsberg and Kronenbourg are all becoming much more open in attempting to attract gays to their products. No more beer ads in just gay newspapers, normally outside of the perusal of straight beer drinkers. American brewers are now holding the closet door open and welcoming new customers. But at what point does a gay-themed beer commercial send its core demographic running into the arms of a less socially attuned competitor who might exploit a possible straight backlash? (“Try Brand X beer. It’s not for sissies!”) Is your average, straight beer drinker ready for commercials featuring men holding hands, floats full of queens at your city’s Gay Pride Parade being sponsored by Anheuser-Busch, Miller Lite, Sam Adams and Pilsner Urquell, or transsexuals promoting one of my favorite beers?
Not that there’s anything wrong with that…
In the next few months, I’ll be adding more of my own videos, along with the self-made smattering that’s now posted at http://drinkz-n-eatz-tv.com/