In Budweiser’s love-hate relationship with craft beers, the pendulum has swung again, according to a March 18 Advertising Age report.
Three years ago, in late 2012, Budweiser liked craft beers so much that they sincerely flattered them – by going to market with three imitation craft beers formulated to reverse a consecutive quarter-century of slumping sales by reaching out to a lost generation of younger beer drinkers, 65 percent of whom had never tried the brand even once. This obviously didn’t work, because the very next year – 2013, the last full year for which Beer Marketer’s Insights numbers are available – craft brewers outsold Budweiser by 100,000 barrels.
That’s when the hate part of the relationship set in. Planning for their 2015 Super Bowl advertising, the brewer decided that if they couldn’t join craft beers, they’d fight ’em. The result was the brand’s “Brewed the Hard Way” commercial, boasting that Bud was a “macro brew” and taking shots at them gol-derned, newfangled “fruity craft beer” upstarts.
Now, with a 90-second online video, Budweiser’s trying to love and hate craft beers, to fight ’em and join ’em, all at once. The video uses the tired, old hidden taste test trick to show that Brooklyn hipsters love Budweiser once they actually try it. In it, a bartender tells the audience that the bar we’re seeing has been wired with hidden cameras, to get the reactions of “unsuspecting customers” as they try “special beer on tap.” When the “unsuspecting customers” belly up to the bar, he tells them that this beer is “brewed to a 139-year-old recipe” and “beechwood aged” (Those descriptions are meaningless to most people, but have the supposed virtue of sounding vaguely artisanal.) and then asks for their reactions.
On several levels, this approach is as phony as the very idea of passing Budweiser off as a craft beer. The first piece of phoniness is the assumption that Brooklyn is still Hipster Central. It hasn’t been. For years. “Brooklyn was once Mecca for hipsterdom,” writes Ad Age managing editor Ken Wheaton. “Sure, many ‘real’ hipsters now consider it, ya know, kinda sorta played out? Because, like, it’s so expensive and there’s too many people with money and families and stuff? And The New York Times writes about it?”
Phony assumption number two is that hipsters – if there any are still left in Brooklyn – are or ever have been expert beer aficionados. As Wheaton notes, “Brooklyn hipsters were the ones who put Pabst (Motto: ‘What else are you going to drink at this price point?’) back on the map. For hipsters, cheapness was one of Pabst’s two virtues. The other was a kind of perverse exclusivity; because it tasted so much like swill, nobody but hipsters would buy it.
The last bit of phoniness is the on-camera blind taste test itself. First, because it can set up false expectations in the testees. “Blind taste tests are known for making people look like fools (or, in marketing speak, question their preconceived notions about a product),” says Wheaton, “And these people — well, the ones carefully selected for the purposes of this interview for Bud — were totally tricked into thinking Budweiser was some sort of new craft brew.” And third, once you’ve stacked the deck by how you select the on-camera consumers and by the setup you feed them, you can control them further by how you edit their responses; somehow, the negative ones never make it off today’s digital equivalent of the cutting-room floor.
Wheaton sums up the technique as “Just pretend it’s a craft brew; they don’t know any better.” But that’s not completely fair to the so-called hipsters in this video. Despite all of Budweiser’s contrivances, the most enthusiastic responses they could muster were, “I like it,” “It’s a reliable beer,” “This would be great on, like, a hundred-degree day,” and “This is a Budweiser?” And if those were the best of the lot, who knows what didn’t make it into the finished video.