Short Cuts

SAME DEPOSITS, LESS RETURN: Call it an irrational concept, but there once was a time when a company, at least a bank, could be judged by its assets. In the dictionary sense, that meant "all the entries on a balance sheet showing the entire resources of a person or business ... as accounts and notes receivable, cash, inventory, equipment, real estate." By that archaic yardstick, it seemed strange that Mercantile Bank, with assets of $36 billion, was bought out by Firstar Corp. of Milwaukee, with $38 billion in assets. But in the ongoing Casino Queen School of Economics, it's your stock value, or the perceived market value of your stock, that counts. What is isn't as important as how much people will bet on what will be. The value of all of Firstar's shares was $21 billion, more than double the value of the Mercantile shares, which was $8.9 billion. So Wall Street looks at a bank like Firstar, which just last November was in Cincinnati and was called Star Banc, and thinks it's on the rise. Firstar also wasn't cramped by Missouri's constrictive bank rules limiting bank mergers to contiguous states. Mercantile shareholders are happy, because they will receive a more than 20 percent premium over the price of their stock. Of course, there are other realities, including the usual post-merger layoffs and the unknown effects on service and community commitment resulting from out-of-town ownership.

Mercantile should at least be happy that back in 1995 it got approval to demolish the historic Ambassador Theater downtown so that an "urban plaza" could be created at Seventh and Locust streets in front of its headquarters -- well, OK, in front of one of Firstar's branch offices.

HEY, BUD MAN, IS THAT YOU? When a humongous corporation does something that seems righteous, chances are it'll mess up soon. Hometown brewmeister Anheuser-Busch is nothing if not large -- its 46.7 percent share of U.S. beer sales last year more than doubled that of second-place Miller.

So it's somewhat significant that when A-B placed an ad in a local magazine, EXP, to note that the company is a "proud sponsor of St. Louis PrideFest," the ad included two guys holding hands, the phrase "Be yourself and make it a Bud Light" and a rainbow backdrop for the Bud Light logo. In a publication geared to gays and lesbians that includes some ads showing the buffed and bare buttocks of men, the Bud Light offering seemed tame. But those religiously or otherwise opposed to gays and lesbians cried foul, claiming A-B was venal and immoral for this pitch. The Rev. Jerry Falwell's newsletter spewed its opposition, too, thereby strangely adding Bud Light to the Teletubbies as products to think twice about.

So just when A-B was looking vaguely enlightened -- though, of course, the charge of venality is hard to refute -- its chairman, August A. Busch III, told Teamsters at the corporation's annual meeting that if they didn't like his company's policy of random hair analysis for drug use, "all you have to do is say 'No' and go get a job elsewhere.'"

What's a beer drinker to do? Buy the product of a company with the gumption and good sense to recognize and validate the gay and lesbian community by targeting it, or boycott the product of a corporation that is philistine enough to invasively test its job applicants and employees without probable cause? And, of course, there are serious reservations about the reliability of hair analysis in determining drug use. The Teamsters have filed a lawsuit in New Jersey against A-B challenging the testing.

But, to accentuate the positive, Debbie Miller, director of operations for Pride St. Louis, is glad that Bud Light is back as a sponsor this year of PrideFest, set for June 26-27 in Tower Grove Park. Last year Miller Lite was a sponsor. This year's parade, with grand marshal Armistead Maupin presiding, will start at 11:30 a.m. Sunday, June 27, at Utah and Grand, heading north down Grand to the east entrance of the park.

So far, the Bud Light ad has only been published in EXP, though it's expected to surface elsewhere. The ad is an example of A-B's marketing moxie -- Bud Light is the brewery's rising star and is projected to surpass Budweiser in supermarket sales this year.

"People have gotten ahold of the ad and put it on the Internet, put it on e-mail. It's really been amazing how much it has spread and how quickly," Miller says. "This is nothing new, to do group-specific advertising. I can't say we're disappointed in the conversation that it's brought up. If anything, it's made people aware that our population is one that people market to. We're in the same boat as a lot of different groups that have marketing done specifically to them. This was a community-specific form of advertisement. It wasn't like this ad was in USA Today."

The ad did set off the usual brushfires, including one stoked by Bob Wells of KJSL (630 AM), the Christian station that once advertised itself as the station hell hates. Friday night, Wells was railing against A-B for catering to "homosexuals" but was taken aback when a caller asked whether Wells had seen the ad. No, he hadn't. Then how could he judge something he had only heard about? Wells shot back, "I've never been to Kosovo, but I've seen it on TV." Ever see Wag the Dog, Bob?

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