Gender roles have long played a part in advertising. But in today’s beer branding, most breweries are avoiding the hypersexualization of women, and debates rage against sexist beer names.
The use of females in beer advertising goes back decades, with the apex (or, perhaps, nadir) of that marketing approach coming in the 1990s and early 2000s, which offered Old Milwaukee’s Swedish Bikini Team, Coors Light’s “Twins” and Miller Lite’s infamous “Catfight,” where two women literally got wet and dirty arguing whether the beer was renowned for “great taste” or being “less filling.”
The use of women—not the beer—as the focal point of advertising has since changed as the consumer base has diversified. With more women drinking beer and an increase in social consciousness, what once seemed the norm no longer presents a long-term option.
“There are some categories where sex can be effective, like cologne or jeans, because those are things people buy in part to be attractive,” says Mike Kallenberger, who spent 30 years working in marketing for Miller Brewing and MillerCoors, and now runs Tropos Brand Consulting. “But drinking a certain beer brand will not.”
Old Milwaukee’s spokeswomen were reported to briefly boost sales among young men, then led to a lawsuit from women asserting the ads encouraged harassment. Neither Coors Light nor Miller Lite saw significant sales increases during their campaigns. But they saw gains when ads shifted toward stories focused on the brands, history or drinkers themselves.
“Attention by objectification will only get you so far,” Kallenberger says. “People aren’t thinking about the beer at that point.”
Debate persists about the viability of lewd names and sexualized labels, born out of releases by Alaska’s Midnight Sun Brewing Co. (Panty Peeler), Oregon’s Hop Valley Brewing (Mouth Raper) and Indiana’s Route 2 Brews, which sells brands like Stacked double IPA and Leg Spreader ESB.
“It seems like a complete disconnect from an audience you’d like to be growing with,” says Rob Engelsman, a strategist with The 88, a digital agency. “If you’re looking to differentiate yourself, you’re doing it, but you’re not doing it in a positive way.”
Most important, Engelsman notes, is for businesses to consider shifting cultural expectations. Sexualized marketing is being overtaken by story-driven content focusing on a company’s history or core values and how those can connect with consumers.
But it hasn’t always been that way. J. Nikol Beckham, assistant professor of communication studies at Randolph College in Virginia, says that in the 1970s and ’80s, many products geared toward men began focusing more on connections to “working-class, American masculinity,” which typically associated with the objectification of women. That may have been the norm for a period of time, but as consumers have become more savvy and options are plentiful, the prospect of alienating a segment doesn’t make sense, she says.
“Craft beer is diverse and has many different identities, but the objectification of women also doesn’t seem to fit with what many of us think is the ethos of craft beer,” says Beckham. “It almost seems out of place.”
Historian and author Maureen Ogle has found a variety of ways in which women have been used in beer advertising over the years, including World War II-era advertisements of women in short-shorts and knee-high boots. But, like Beckham, she notes that a level of sexism in marketing or branding has less of place now. Grabbing attention with an inappropriate slogan or name may sell beer in the short term, but Ogle says prospects change when women are a growing segment of beer buyers.
“If I were the person making that decision, I’d be thinking if I can afford to knock out a particular audience,” Ogle says. “You’re making a lot of assumptions about the people who would buy the beer and the men who would drink it.”
Marketing decisions increasingly come down to connections—between branding, people and stories.
“Being irreverent and edgy are always going to be ways to get free press and build a brand, but in the long run there’s a shift away from that, and that’s a good thing,” says Michael Anderson, co-founder of The Crafter Space, a business incubator that works with Milwaukee breweries.
Roger Baylor, the former owner of New Albanian Brewing Co., feels regret over his own name and label combo created for Naughty Girl Belgian Blonde Ale, which prominently displays a blonde mermaid with heaving cleavage and descriptions referencing a menage a trois and being “willfully disobedient.”
The beer garners above-average ratings among online rating sites, but has never been one of the brewery’s best-sellers, Baylor says. “I feel this extreme annoyance with myself when I look at it now,” he says. “In retrospect, it looks really stupid.”
He says he understands from a business perspective why a lesser-known brewery might look to get attention with off-color branding, but that doesn’t make it right, or guarantee success. Especially if it involves potentially alienating females, who make up about a quarter to a third of beer drinkers.
“As a white male, I know I have to stop and think about these things a lot,” Baylor says. “Would you want to find yourself objectified? Then why the hell would you do it to somebody else?”