Malt Liquor Goes Wild
In 1963 at National Brewing in Baltimore, a man named Dawson Farber was leading the marketing effort. Other “national” breweries–Anheuser-Busch and Joseph Schlitz–were moving into his city with big advertising budgets. Farber anticipated that his National Bohemian lager was not going to fare well. He had to find a niche.
At the time, the only malt liquor with anything close to a national presence was Country Club. Farber had a different vision, one that focused less on middle class aspirations and more on the kick in the can. He came up with the name, Colt 45, and told a designer he wanted a label emblazoned with a kicking horse and a horseshoe.
This was a master stroke but also a violation of federal law. The Code of Federal Regulations, Title 27, Part 7 “Prohibited Practices,” Section 7.29 (g), states that a malt beverage’s label “shall not contain any statements, designs, or devices, whether in the form of numerals, letters, characters, figures, or otherwise, which are likely to be considered as statements of alcoholic content.”
The future hung in the balance, but the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms (BATF) approved Colt 45, kicking horse, horseshoe and all.
As the new brew with the kick of a colt enjoyed national success, the well-mannered brands of the previous decades were trampled by herds of animals. The BATF gave the green light to mustangs and stallions, red lions, red bulls and pit bulls, big bears and big cats, jaguars and panthers, hawks and eagles, scorpions and cobras–a wild kingdom in the cooler.
Malt Liquor Makes New Friends
At the same time, another change was in the wind. For 25 years, brewers had directed malt liquor advertising to white, middle-class consumers. But the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s alerted many American businesses to a group that had been invisible to them: Black Americans. Prompted partly by social conscience and partly by threatened boycotts, marketers awoke to the wisdom of appealing to Black audiences–hiring Black-owned advertising agencies; placing advertising in media that Black people read, watched and heard; and featuring Black people in the advertisements.
Among the businessmen given a nudge were brewers. They asked, “Which of our products are Black people buying already?” The word came back up the sales chain that people of color drank proportionally more malt liquor than their white counterparts. Nobody knew why; they just did.
While Black Americans comprise 12 to 14 percent of the population, they consume 30 to 33 percent of the malt liquor brewed in the United States The statistic is important for two reasons. First, it shows why brewers of malt liquor advertise more heavily to Blacks: As a group, they buy more malt liquor. The second important fact is that if a third of all malt liquor is consumed by Black Americans, two-thirds is consumed by people who are not black. Hold that thought.
In New Jersey, Trenton’s Champale was one of the first malt liquor brewers to pay attention to the Black community. Long a champion of the “champagne on a beer budget” approach, Champale ran a 1966 print ad showing a handsome Black couple in evening dress with the caption, “Ready, Set, Glow!”
Colt 45 did some tentative reaching out in 1974 with print ads featuring comedian and actor Redd Foxx. He had a highly rated TV show in “Sanford and Son,” he was Black, and white people liked him.