Perfectly Tuned In

All About Beer Magazine - Volume 22, Issue 6
January 1, 2002 By

When Advertising Age magazine released its picks for the best 100 ad campaigns of the 20th century, it was no surprise that the world of beer advertising was well represented. After all, few can forget Bubba Smith and Dick Butkus arguing that eternal debate, “Tastes Great–Less Filling.” Likewise, many a beer drinker can still whistle that infectious jingle, “Hey Mabel–Black Label,” though the popular television commercials have not aired for 30 years. So, what made these and other classic beer commercials great?

Surely, from the beer maker’s standpoint, a commercial’s success can ultimately be judged by only one criterion: its impact on beer sales. But, we, the oft-jaded viewers, take a more visceral approach. More and more, we tend to grade commercials on their ability to, if only in passing, penetrate our popular culture. At their best, we induct them into our collective psyche, muse over them with friends and coworkers, and even add their lingo to our vocabulary (can you say “Whassup?”).

Beer makers have been searching for the perfect beer commercial nearly since television exploded onto the American scene in the late 1940s. In those pioneer days, nobody–not the advertisers, not the ad agencies, not the TV stations–knew exactly what made for a good commercial. Indeed, the earliest beer commercials consisted of everything from live demonstrations of how to cook a Welsh rarebit using beer to the noisy rumble of a studio audience muddling through a rendition of the brewer’s theme song.

With National Prohibition still fresh in memory, brewers were initially wary of peddling their beers on the air. Early critics of television saw the new medium as little more than an intrusion into peoples’ living rooms, and many were concerned that beer ads might offend the viewers’ sensibilities. Commercials that actually showed a person consuming beer, for example, were often deemed in bad taste. Beer ads were typically aired only in the late evenings, and Sundays were entirely off limits. Surveys were periodically conducted among viewers to determine whether any “moral backlash” might be caused by selling beer on television.

But early apprehension was soon overtaken by the realization that television offered beer makers something tremendously valuable and unique: the ability to target the beer drinker right at the barstool. The American tavern, after all, was the first home of television. In Chicago, for example, taverns accounted for half of all sales of television sets in 1947. Had any tavern keeper initially doubted the revolutionary importance of TV to his trade, he was surely converted after the 1947 World Series. Telecasts of the seven games between the Dodgers and the Yankees made for standing-room-only crowds in taverns throughout New York City.

Indeed, in the early days, as TV stations were starved for quality programs, television was necessarily dominated by sporting events. This, of course, added significantly to TV’s allure among beer advertisers. The notion that “sports sells beer” is perhaps the most sacred axiom of beer marketing, just as true 50 years ago as today.

Who’s On First?

Surprisingly, it was not the nation’s largest beer makers who led the brewing industry’s charge into television. Rather, most of TV’s pioneer beer advertisers were regional brewers. In 1945, New England’s Narragansett Beer sponsored the first telecasts of Boston Red Sox games, though neither the brewery nor the baseball team seemed overly confident about the then-infant medium. In fact, Sox management granted Narragansett the sponsorship rights free of charge, telling brewery officials, “We don’t know what we’re doing, and neither do you.”

Despite that early (albeit tentative) arrangement, Modern Brewery Age magazine christened the Hyde Park brewery of St. Louis the “first brewery to sponsor a televised program anywhere.” It was February 1947, and St. Louis was launching its inaugural television broadcast, consisting of a man-on-the-street interviewer talking to local residents. Hyde Park’s early commercials–perhaps history’s first prerecorded beer spots–featured “Albert, The Stick Man,” an animated cartoon character with a knack for finding trouble. Whatever Albert’s dilemma, a bottle of Hyde Park Beer always brought relief.

By the end of 1947, a handful of brewers had launched themselves onto the airwaves. Griesedieck Beer was broadcasting a sports program in St. Louis hosted by Harry Caray who, of course, went on to become the voice of the St. Louis Cardinals and, later, the Chicago Cubs. In Detroit, Goebel Beer was sponsoring telecasts of Tigers baseball games. Beer rivalries in Chicago spurred three breweries–Keeley, Peter Fox, and Canadian Ace–to jump into television. National Bohemian Beer was on the air in its home market of Baltimore. And Sunshine Beer of Reading, PA, debuted an experimental program in which no actual commercials were shown. Instead, the program’s two characters–named “The Coach” and “The Young Fellow”–wove discussions of Sunshine Beer right into their dialogue.

Within just a few short years, brewers had staked their claim on the new medium, and beer marketing would never be the same. In 1951, Blatz Beer was the sole sponsor of what was perhaps television’s first major “media event”–migration of the venerable Amos ‘n’ Andy radio program to television. Blatz officials traveled the country in an airplane with a fully equipped public relations office, stirring up excitement for the new program. Spending $250,000 just to hype the premiere episode, Blatz quickly ranked among television’s top advertisers. Other brewers would soon follow.

Hitting the Spot

Of course, sponsoring the highly rated programs was key, but as viewers became more sophisticated, the commercials themselves required more polish and finesse. After all, if the ad didn’t sell the product, it was useless. Several genres of TV commercial emerged: the testimonial, the mini-drama, the celebrity endorsement, the demonstration. But, the cornerstone of American TV advertising was (and largely still is) what experts call the “identifiable character”–Tony the Tiger, the Jolly Green Giant, Mr. Whipple, and countless others.

Among the earliest, and certainly one of the most successful, ID characters put to work on television for a brewery was “Mabel,” a genial blond bartendress who rarely spoke, but ended virtually every commercial with a friendly wink. Beginning in 1951, and for nearly the next 20 years, Mabel and her tray of Carling Black Label Beers glided across millions of television screens in response to that familiar call, “Hey Mabel–Black Label!”

Mabel’s graceful charm and captivating smile seemed to hit beer drinkers right between the eyes. One observer commented that Mabel could “compel any man to leave home–to fetch a carton of Carling’s, that is.” Indeed, with Mabel leading the way, the Carling Brewing Co. skyrocketed up the list of America’s largest brewers, from number 28 in 1951 to number 6 in 1957.

Pot shots from rival brewers were inevitable. In a clever TV spot for Labatt’s Beer, a young woman exits a tavern with a package under her arm. Wearing dark sunglasses and a scarf over her head, she scurries down the sidewalk, her face obscured by her coat collar. Much to her dismay, she is stopped by a man-on-the-street interviewer, complete with microphone and camera crew. Upon inquiry, the young woman reluctantly reveals that her package contains a six-pack of Labatt’s. The interviewer then asks, “Would you tell us your name?” The woman, as if relieved that her dark secret has been uncovered, removes her sunglasses dramatically, looks directly into the camera, and says, “Why, yes. I’m Mabel.”

Of course, Labatt’s hadn’t lured away the real Mabel–merely a close facsimile. Carling’s Mabel was played by Jeanne Goodspeed, a New York actress and model. In the mid-1950s, when Goodspeed ended her career to become a mother, Carling faced a bit of a dilemma. Mabel’s popularity precluded casting a new actress in her role. Instead, animated cartoon Mabels, together with clips from Goodspeed’s very first Carling shooting session in 1951, were the basis of Black Label commercials for years. Finally, in 1970, a new actress was cast in the role, but only to witness the final departure of Mabel shortly afterward.

The success of Mabel notwithstanding, not all ID characters were live actors. During the 1950s and ’60s, animation in TV commercials was predominant, and for good reason. Certainly, animation was far less expensive to produce than live action. But, more important, it offered maximum creative flexibility, allowing advertisers to produce dynamic, original commercials limited only by the animator’s imagination.

Hamming It Up

Never were the advantages of animation better exploited than in the long-running commercials featuring the wacky-go-lucky Hamm’s bear. Making his television debut in 1953, the Hamm’s bear ultimately became one of history’s most recognized advertising figures. In 1965, the Audit Research Bureau reported that the bear ranked first in “best liked” advertisements nationwide, an impressive achievement considering that Hamm’s commercials aired in only 31 states.

At least two aspects of the Hamm’s bear commercials were critical to their overwhelming success. First, each spot was, in itself, a miniature story, complete with plot, characters, conflict, and (if the bear was lucky) resolution. The spots had genuine entertainment value and elicited good viewer attention. Second, the animation and interspersed real-life shots dramatically showcased Minnesota’s pristine wilderness–the crystal-clear lakes, the heavy foliage, the abundant wildlife–in order to drive home the Hamm’s theme: “From the Land of Sky Blue Waters.” Consumer perception that Hamm’s Beer was pure, natural and refreshing was thus achieved through vivid imagery instead of trite, easily forgettable ad copy.

By 1969, the future of the Hamm’s Bear was uncertain, as the brewery’s advertising direction began to change. Nevertheless, over the next 20 years, the bear would be called upon periodically to replay his role as chief Hamm’s Beer salesman. In 2000, St. Paul’s Pioneer Press named the bear as a runner-up on its list of “150 Influential Minnesotans of the Past 150 Years.”

Rivaling the Hamm’s bear in terms of public recall and likeability was the animated comedy team of Bert and Harry Piel, fictitious owners of Brooklyn’s Piel Bros. brewery. During the 1950s and ’60s, New Yorkers fell in love with the cantankerous, loud-mouthed Bert and befuddled, soft-spoken Harry–who got their voices from the comedy team of Bob and Ray. Commercials typically depicted the brothers stumbling through some sort of promotional endeavor for Piel’s Beer only to be foiled by an unexpected snafu, setting off Bert’s temper and Harry’s futile efforts to calm him. The pair became so popular that thousands of letters were mailed to them at the Piel’s brewery, and the Bert and Harry fan club numbered over 100,000 members.

But critics pointed out that, while Bert and Harry were undeniably entertaining, they did little to support any particular image or attribute for Piel’s Beer. In the end, the critics proved right. Bert and Harry went down in history as the textbook example of that all-too-common advertising dilemma: Good reception, poor response. During the initial six years that the duo hawked Piel’s Beer, the brewery’s sales, on average, grew less than 1 percent per year. Bert and Harry even poked fun at the problem in one of their commercials. “Some of you–and you know who you are–were laughing at our commercials and not buying our beer. The free ride is over!” yelled Bert. “We have a new theme: ‘I’m laughing with Piel’s in my hand.’ What’s fair is fair!”

The pair was finally pulled from the airwaves in 1960. But, they returned two years later when Piel’s ad agency, Young and Rubicam, staged a mock election in newspapers and radio, the result of which was that New Yorkers wanted Bert and Harry to return. Fate was not much kinder to the comic brothers that time and, in 1965, they were retired yet again.

It’s Miller Time

During much of the 1950s and ’60s, advertising agencies that handled beer accounts were saddled with a unique dilemma. The average beer drinker (the guy who was unflatteringly dubbed “Joe Six-Pack” by beer marketers), perceived little difference between one domestic brand of beer and another. In the consumer’s mind, all beer was made from essentially the same ingredients, underwent the same brewing process, came in basically the same types of packages, cost more or less the same, etc. For ad agencies and copywriters, this made for relatively few “selling points.” A beer’s flavor, more often than not, was the only source of distinction. Thus, flavor became the underlying theme, in one form or another, of virtually all beer commercials.

Three days in January 1971 changed all that. Beer distributors from around the country converged on Boca Raton, FL, for Miller Brewing Co.’s national sales meeting. The focal point of the gathering was Miller’s launch of a nationwide advertising campaign centered on the slogan, “If you’ve got the time, we’ve got the beer.” A new genre of beer commercial was about to be born.

Tobacco giant Philip Morris had just acquired full ownership of Miller Brewing during the previous year. The company had big plans for Miller, hoping to apply the same advertising strategies to the beer industry that it had used to propel Marlboro cigarettes to the top position within the tobacco industry. (The company even test-marketed “Marlboro Beer” but ultimately shelved it.)

Television, of course, would be Miller’s primary means of assault. TV spots for Miller High Life bore a strikingly similar look and feel to Philip Morris’ venerable Marlboro Man commercials. The new ads invariably depicted tough and rugged he-men drinking Miller Beer–not because they enjoyed its delicate balance of flavors, not because they fancied the easy-to-open bottle, but because they worked hard all day and, dammit, now it was Miller Time.

The “you earned it” theme was a complete departure from the tired old claims of two decades worth of beer commercials. Number-one-selling Budweiser jumped on the bandwagon with the tagline, “For all you do, this Bud’s for you.” For the first time, beer ads were not about the beer, but about the beer drinker. Joe Six-Pack ate it up, and beer advertising moved headlong into a new era.

The Lite Brigade

One other important development came from the Miller sales meeting in Boca Raton. At the time, however, few–including Miller itself–realized the ultimate significance. Brewery president William Kostecke told the crowd that, after years of producing only one brand (High Life), Miller would begin experimenting with “secondary brands.” Barely three years later, Lite Beer from Miller took the industry by storm, forging an entirely new beer category.

Television was perhaps never more instrumental in the launch of a new brand of beer than it was for Lite. Introducing a low-calorie beer, after all, was no small gamble for Miller. Nay-sayers argued that men–who, naturally, comprise the bulk of the beer-consuming public–not only had no interest in counting calories but would likely regard Lite as a “sissy beer.” This was the challenge faced by McCann-Erickson, Miller’s ad agency. The solution: find the toughest, manliest guys out there and put them on TV touting the merits of Lite Beer from Miller. The slogan: “Everything you always wanted in a beer. And less.”

The first Lite commercials aired in 1973 and starred the likes of football greats Matt Snell and Ernie Stautner and mystery writer Mickey Spillane. Over the course of the next decade, the company shot more than 80 commercials, and the roster of “Lite All-Stars” boasted nearly 40 celebs and sports icons. John Madden, Billy Martin, Rodney Dangerfield, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Dick Butkus, Bubba Smith and Bob Uecker were just a few of the Lite regulars. Boog Powell once commented, “You make one Lite commercial, it’s like then everyone forgets you played ball for 20 years.”

Of course, it was Lite’s never-ending debate-“Tastes Great, Less Filling”–that earned the ads their place in history. But it wasn’t until 1976, three full years after Lite commercials first aired, that the gimmick had fully taken shape. Tommy Heinsohn, the notoriously combative Boston Celtics coach, and hard-nosed NBA official Mendy Rudolph squared off on the issue in a barroom scene. After Heinsohn refused to agree that Lite was, first and foremost, less filling, Rudolph threw his thumb in the air and screamed, “You’re out of the bar.”

“Less Filling” was McCann-Erickson’s clever way of putting a macho spin on the low calorie issue. If Lite was less filling, that meant you could drink more of it. Commercials invariably showed the performers sitting in front of a table loaded with empties, though the Federal Trade Commission mandated that the actor say something like, “Oh, I’m not saying I drank all these by myself.” Nevertheless, the implication was clear. And so was Lite’s success. Between 1973 and 1978, Miller sales exploded from just under 7 million barrels to over 31 million barrels–the most dramatic period of expansion ever recorded by a beer maker.

TV: The Brewer’s Battleground

The phenomenal growth of Miller and the other nationally shipping brewers during the 1970s came, of course, entirely at the expensive of the small, regional brewer. Any hopes of protecting one’s home market from the invasion of the nationals meant doing bloody battle. Television, far more than any other medium, was the theater of engagement. The regional brewers’ fight for their very survival made for some interesting beer commercials.

When the national brewers advanced on Erie, PA, the Erie Brewing Co.–makers of Koehler Beer–resorted to tongue-in-cheek threats aimed at local beer drinkers. The somewhat morbid TV spots cautioned consumers to buy only Koehler, lest they incur the wrath of long-dead brewery founder Jackson Koehler. The series of commercials showed a ghostly “Uncle Jackson” sabotaging golf games, ruining backyard barbecues, and generally wreaking havoc in the lives of beer drinkers until they vowed allegiance to Koehler Beer. Each commercial ended with the menacing tagline, “Uncle Jackson’s Watching,” followed by a crash of thunder.

Commercials for Burger Beer of Cincinnati took the national brewers head on, knocking their slogans and million-dollar ad campaigns. The tagline was, “Don’t be bamboozled by out-of-town beers.” Commercials included a jingle with lyrics, “Some beers come from Milwaukee; Some come from over the sea; But I’m not bamboozled, cuz my beer is Burger; My beer’s from the same place as me.”

Ortlieb’s Beer of Philadelphia hoped to counter the mega-breweries by putting a neighborly face on their beer. Commercials featured amiable real-life brew master Joe Ortlieb addressing consumers directly, capped with the friendly slogan, “Try Joe’s Beer.” In one spot, Joe tells customers, “In the beer business, when you bump another brand out of a bar, it’s called ‘knocking off a spigot.’ Those big guys can knock off my spigots, but they can’t knock off my taste.”

In the end, Koehler, Burger, Ortlieb’s and countless others did not win their struggle. The typical small brewer simply could not match the large advertising budgets of his national rivals. Even today, virtually every televised sporting event is dotted with beer commercials, proving that television remains a key weapon in the big brewers’ arsenal.