It’s bad form for a columnist to bang on about how things are worse now than they used to be. Small doses are fine, sure. But follow the impulse for cultural revanchism too far and one day — boom! — you’re a reactionary clown whining about how kids these days aren’t learning home economics or marrying Republicans, or whatever.
That said, when it comes to the United States’ brewing industry, comparing the way things are to The Way Things Were is a tried-and-true method for assessing beer’s rapidly shifting place in the national zeitgeist. And Super Bowl beer ads were pretty terrific. “A single Super Bowl commercial can change our vocabulary,” wrote the late ad journalist Bernice Kanner in 2003’s “The Super Bowl of Advertising: How the Commercials Won the Game.” “Whassup?!” She’s right: two decades later, Americans still use that Budweiser salutation — first coined for 2000’s Super Bowl XXXIV — as a byword for goofy intimacy. Like “Dalmations,” “Great Taste/Less Filling,” and the Coors Twins, “Whassup!? is rooted in the American vernacular thanks (or not; some conceits have aged way better than others) to the American brewing industry’s long-standing legacy of pushing cultural and creative boundaries in Big Game ads. But at the risk of sounding aggrieved: They don’t make ‘em like they used to.
Big Beer’s Super Bowl spots this year are uninspired, gun-shy, reductive schlock that insult the viewer and the industry’s long, proud legacy of culture-making advertising. This isn’t the first year they’ve missed the mark, either. Hackneyed columnists’ crutches aside, it’s time to face reality. We’re living through the twilight of beer ads’ ability to capture the national mood, and it’s hard to watch.
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Last year marked the first Super Bowl in three decades during which in-game national airtime was available to all beer brands, loosed from Anheuser-Busch InBev’s covetous, exclusionary grasp. Finally, the Marketplace of Ideas™️ had been restored! The Invisible Hand of laissez-faire competition would deliver unto our Super Bowl screens only the sharpest, most indelible beer ads! Bud.tv died so that Suds.tv could live! Not exactly. Bud Light outsourced its efforts to Miles Teller and his wife. Michelob Ultra put out “a cameo-heavy sin at “Caddyshack’s” altar,” as Hop Take called it at the time. Heineken pitched its non-alcoholic line extension in an “Ant-Man” collaboration so lazy it’s making me mad to think about it a year later. Molson Coors acted like it was just happy to be there — and maybe a little strapped for cash, too, as it went Dutch with DraftKings on its singular spot. Only the Teller spot cracked the USAToday Ad Meter’s Top 10 that year, inexplicably placing sixth. The top slot went to a dog food brand.
You could be forgiven for hoping for a better showing in 2024 from America’s brewing titans and the agencies that serve their advertising needs. Flukes happen! Unfortunately, the beer industry has more dismal dreck on tap for this year’s Super Bowl. We finalized this column just three days prior to Super Bowl LVIII’s kickoff on Feb. 11. By then, most major macrobrewers in the U.S. had unveiled their brands’ Big Game spots. Here the state of play:
- Bud Light: After an historically bad job managing the transphobic conservative id in 2023, Anheuser-Busch InBev is launching its flailing flagship’s comeback tour this year with the “Bud Light Genie,” a dude in sunglasses who grants an ensemble cast of Peyton Manning, Post Malone, and Ultimate Fighting Championship wife-slapper-in-chief Dana White a wished-for supply of — you guessed it! — Bud Light. To call this ad “scared of its own shadow” would be unfair to shadows. It’s just scared, man.
- Budweiser: I was wrong when I predicted that ABI would force the King of Beers to fully abdicate its one-time throne after benching the brand for Super Bowl LV in 2021. But maybe it should have? This year’s Bud Heavy joint is heavy on the nostalgia, tapping a golden Labrador and the iconic Clydesdales (late of 2023’s since-resolved tail-docking scandal) for a keg run through a snowy mountain pass to ensure a socked-in bar doesn’t run out of beer. I doubt ABI intended to celebrate the Teamsters’ traditional labor and equine symbol on national TV as 5,000 rank-and-filers prepare to strike for a fair contract, but I also doubt that the union will miss the chance to slam the brewer for stealing valor.
- Michelob Ultra: The work-hard/play-hard beer got a try-hard spot this year featuring Lionel Messi, Dan Marino, and Jason Sudeikis semi-reprising his role as Ted Lasso (late of Apple TV’s toxic-positivity psyop by the same name.) Do you see? Mich Ultra is the sports beer, and these are the famous sports boys. We love them, our famous sports boys, don’t we, folks? The only part of this commercial that even threatens to be remembered is the moment where Marino calls out his own name (“Dan The Man!”) while standing on a boat named The Dan Marina. Sure, whatever. Moving on.
- Coors Light: The Silver Bullet is selling pretty damn well these days, but you wouldn’t know it from this year’s ad, which is built upon the old Chill Train campaign and stars L.L. Cool J as conductor. Last year Molson Coors tried to do way too much in its Super Bowl return, and the result was a limbic-capitalism fourway promoting Miller Lite, Coors Light, Blue Moon, and sports betting. This year, it isn’t trying hard enough (though the brief on-screen dig at Corona showed some promise.) A rerun already? You kidding me?!
These are not the risk-taking, groundbreaking, lexicon-expanding beer commercials of yore, reader. Hell, forget yore — you don’t have to run it back to the days of Spuds MacKenzie or the Budweiser Frogs to find ads that coined slang and created cultural phenomena on the airwaves. I hated “Dilly Dilly” when it first aired in 2017, and I hated it even more when ABI scrambled to bring back its most recognizable offshoot, the Bud Knight, last summer in a desperate attempt to distract the country’s transphobes from Dylan Mulvaney’s existence. But I was in the minority. People are still posting on fandom message boards about the best ways to fashion their own Bud Light blue suits of medieval armor to this day. It’s only recently that beer ads became so unremarkable, is what I’m saying. They used to be better.
What gives? I think you can lay at least a smidgeon of blame for this disappointing slate at the feet of conservative culture-warrior types and the ABI execs who gave them oxygen. The firm — and, make no mistake, its competition — spent the past 10 months gazing upon the seething, destructive power of right-wing reactionaries. The Super Bowl is traditionally considered an opportunity to amp up wholesalers and retailers for the all-important summer beer-selling season; to run afoul of the MAGA mob at such a pivotal moment, to become “the next Bud Light,” would be catastrophic. Putting out overwrought, underwhelming spots is no way to secure a spot in the canon of American beer advertising, but better the rabble be “[B]arking like a seal and clapping [their] flippers together every time a famous person shows up in a Super Bowl ad” (as Defector’s David J. Roth recently put it) than braying for marketers’ heads.
Major social and technological shifts only compound corporate timidity. The Super Bowl remains one of the best shots a beer company has at reaching the entire country all at once, but the influence of the live broadcast is slowly eroding, particularly among younger viewers. While demand is still strong — LVIII’s inventory of 30-second slots, priced at $7 million apiece, has been sold out since November 2023 — some marquee advertisers have already begun bowing out of the marketing bonanza. For example, the four largest automakers all passed on in-game air this year, the first time in over two decades that’s happened. Heineken appears to have done likewise, and Miller Lite, too, though the latter is running a halfway clever counterprogramming campaign for the event starring comedian Rob Riggle’s nipples.
Blame TikTok robbing Zoomers of attention span, or the millennial habit of keeping one eye on live television events and the other on Twitter (a ritual that’s proven surprisingly durable even as the platform turns into a cesspool under welfare queen Elon Musk’s ownership), or Facebook or smartphones before that. The rise of “content grazing” across multiple screens has left audiences paradoxically more targetable and more fragmented than ever, with ever-dwindling focus, to boot. To succeed in that paradigm, advertisers have to go dumber, broader, faster — and more anodyne, too, to avoid alienating half of the country by accidentally appealing to the other half. And they’ve gotta walk that line while creators on those very platforms that smashed the media ecosystem into a million pieces collectively siphon off billions of formerly earmarked dollars making #content that inflates audience expectations for humor while simultaneously undercutting the entire premise of the 30-second Super Bowl spot.
The logical outcome of all this, at least where the American brewing industry is concerned, also happens to be the saddest one. Super Bowl LVIII’s beer commercials are pitching to an imagined American middle that barely exists on the other side of the screen. The ads are rote, overreliant on celebrities, and instantly forgettable. They’ll barely exist after the Super Bowl is off screen. It’s not The Way Things Were, but it’s the way things are now. Grieve accordingly.
🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now
It’s been roughly six months since the last time a major mainstream outlet published a glowing profile of Athletic Brewing Co. that broke basically no new ground about the company, so I guess we were due for another round. Lo, following this August 2023 entry to the genre from GQ, the business brains at the Wall Street Journal delivered last week with several thousand words about the Stratford, Conn., brewery’s success mainstreaming non-alcoholic craft beer. Having interviewed the fine folks at Athletic a few times myself, I can confirm that their origin story is a good yarn — or it was five years ago, when I wrote it. Honestly, I might have even been a bit late on it then! What are we doing here, people?!
After growing volume by 10 percent last year, Downeast Cider is rolling out an imperial line to capitalize on cider’s big breakout opportunity in 2024… The National Beer Wholesaler Association sees cause for cautious optimism in January’s data… Sierra Nevada Brewing Co. has a new chief executive, and it’s Beam Suntory’s former global sales lead…
📉 …and downs
Former Boston Beer Co. employees are suing over the firm’s unusual enforcement of its non-compete clauses… The Northeast’s powerful beer-distributor dynasty, Sheehan Family Companies, has resolved its litigious infighting, show’s over folks… Edward Teach Brewing of North Carolina is suing critics of its owner… New Belgium Brewing’s taproom in San Francisco is no more… Anchor SF Cooperative has decided not to bid on erstwhile brewery, citing stiff competition and limited funds… Uber plans to lay off 168 Drizly employees after shutting the platform down last month…