Drinkin' Dirt

Bargain brews such as Pabst Blue Ribbon are making a comeback in some of St. Louis' hippest clubs, but Anheuser-Busch isn't too worried

Dirt beer it isn't.

The track records of A-B's Big Three rivals, Miller and Coors, have been decidedly mixed. Although Coors' lead brand, Coors Light, has legions of loyal consumers on the West Coast and in the Sun Belt, it has a disproportionately poor market share in St. Louis, despite the brewery's garish NFL ad campaign and pre-Rams-game tailgate parties.

Jennifer Silverberg
High Life in hand, Miller rep Patrick Sullivan chats up the denizens of the Famous Bar.
Jennifer Silverberg
High Life in hand, Miller rep Patrick Sullivan chats up the denizens of the Famous Bar.

Furthermore, it is difficult to see how Coors' dubious "Twins" NFL television-ad campaign -- with its dim, soak-your-buddy's-T-shirt-with-beer, "Hey everybody, get drunk, get laid," Limp Bizkit-y pandering to guys in their twenties -- promotes anything short of a lifestyle centered around chronic public inebriation and horrendously distasteful objectification of women.

At six-foot-one and 230 pounds, 26-year-old Clayton lawyer and former college linebacker Mike Fischer looks like the sort of bloke who'd be intentionally emptying a bottle of Coors Light on some chick's halter top in one of the "Twins" ads. But looks aren't everything.

"Perhaps the most offensive thing about the Coors ad campaign is the picture it paints of men," says Fischer. "There is certainly a place for fraternitylike behavior, but these Coors ads take meatheadedness to an entirely new level and assign its attributes to the entire male population. Can you imagine a Michelob Ultra Light campaign that had groups of women sipping beer with straws while a voiceover cries: 'I! Love! Shopping on TV! Soap-opera marathons! And manicures! Here's to ATMs!'?"

Fischer is not alone in his disdain for Coors and its leading brand, Coors Light (a.k.a. the "Silver Bullet").

"Luckily I haven't had to bend to the Silver Bullet crowd yet," says the Delmar's Morgan. "It's garbage beer. It's a West Coast thing."

In fact, given that Pabst brands -- with nary an advertising budget to speak of -- clobber third-ranked Coors in the St. Louis area, the Denver brewer's inability to appeal to St. Louisans may be even more of a phenomenon than the re-emergence of nostalgia beer. Still, even Morgan -- who is quick to point out that he likes the Coors commercials featuring Dr. Dre playing a drum machine on an airplane -- acknowledges that the "Twins" ads may well be effective.

"I think it [the campaign] is retarded, personally, but it works," says Morgan. "They [guys in their twenties] drink a lot of beer."

Of the campaign's efficacy thus far, Coors' Midwest field-marketing manager Monique Woodford says simply: "It's been going well." BMI's Shepard remains skeptical.

"I don't know," he says of whether Coors' NFL ad blitz has translated into sales. "I think they were expecting a little bit of a pop in late 2002. It's not clear that that occurred. I think the jury's still out."

Miller's Sullivan feels that, if nothing else, the "Twins" ads have generated considerable buzz among pop-culture tastemakers, both negative and positive. He should know; Miller Lite recently caused a decent media stir with its new "Catfight" campaign, which depicts the ideal male beer-commercial fantasy of a "tastes great, less filling" argument between two gorgeous women escalating into a nearly naked mud-wrestling showdown. Both Coors and Miller seem to be shamelessly pandering to the meathead set. But there's a critical difference: The Miller campaign's conclusion makes its tongue-in-cheek plotline crystal-clear. Not that Sullivan cares. After all, the old adage that no press is bad press still carries considerable intellectual credibility.

"It [the "Catfight" campaign] has outperformed anyone's expectations," says Sullivan. "It's generating a lot of buzz. Lite needs to become cool again for 21- to 27-year-old males."

Sullivan also believes that PBR may owe a debt of gratitude to Miller's once-dormant High Life brand, dubbed "the Champagne of Beers," which unexpectedly touched a nostalgic nerve with young males in the late '90s and early this decade with an ingenious ad campaign devised by award-winning documentarian Errol Morris ["The Thin Blue Line"]. Featuring monotone narration and minimalist, domestic settings, these High Life ads extolled the virtues of deviled-egg consumption, slovenly machismo, less-than-firm tummies and coffee-stained wife-beaters.

"The whole manly ad campaign -- 'I'm not afraid of cholesterol' -- kicked in about five years ago," recalls Sullivan, who notes that High Life's growth had traditionally taken place among men over 44. "It was surprising how the young male demographic responded to those ads. They weren't aimed at them."

But thanks to an overzealous play in the emerging "malternative" market -- liquor-based drinks with substantially reduced alcohol content -- A-B's closest competitor has not been able to leverage High Life's surprising popularity into consistent success for its other brands. The chief criticism leveled against the brewery -- which recently announced a change of CEO -- is that it diverted promotional dollars from its core beer brands over the summer to pump up "malternatives" such as Jack Daniel's Hard Cola and Skyy Blue Vodka.

"They spent all summer pushing malternatives, but they bought back a lot [of product]," says Kopman. "I think you have to be a spirit-based company to successfully push spirits. A-B's move with Bacardi Silver is a defensive play. Miller took on multiple partners, maybe bit off more than they could chew."

Miller's Sullivan acknowledges that perhaps his company bet too much of its farm on too many different malternative brands, yet he remains a believer in the market.

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