Our writer tries to figure it out.
When you brew a beer that attracts such laurels as “pretty good for what it is” and “far better than most cheap, American piss water,” you had better have a pretty good marketing angle. Michelob Ultra has been on the market since 2002, its introduction coming during the upsweep of the low-carb, Atkins diet craze. Michelob’s angle has mainly been to associate it with fitness and athletics, positioning it as something like the Gatorade of beers.
Since Ultra’s inception, however, a few things have changed: First, we’re no longer quite so obsessed with cutting our carbs. It’s not that consuming fewer carbs has suddenly become such a bad idea, but rather that other diets with better names (Paleo! G-free!) have moved into the spotlight.
Second, what Americans look for in a beer is changing: As of 2014, Americans were buying more craft beer than Budweiser (not including Bud Light, it should be admitted—just straight-up Budweiser). We’ve grown familiar with a far more sophisticated spectrum of varieties than light, dark, and amber. Even though mass-produced beers still own the majority of the market, they’re losing percentage points to this idea going around that you can get more out of a beer than a buzz.
Those, I’m guessing, are the factors behind a recent crop of oddly unwatchable TV ads from Michelob Ultra. The ads continue Ultra’s association with physical activity but add a more pronounced focus on the social aspect of drinking. It’s now a beer aimed at “friends who come together to reach for better.”
As an idea, it’s actually pretty solid. Beer has been tied to social occasions for about as long as we can determine; Hamurabi’s code—one of the world’s oldest documents—contains several laws regulating the business of taverns. And even more than a team of cantering Clydesdales or a curtain of golden bubbles bursting against a ceiling of silvery foam, the image of people enjoying their beers together is one of the most reliable and effective tropes in beer advertising. Nothing wrong with that.
So why are these new ads (here’s another) so excruciating to watch? It’s actually not, I think, because they’re cliché. That term, while it certainly implies overfamiliarity and excessive use, at least leaves room for a certain amount of truth, no matter how tired. What’s going on here is something even more painful.
Let’s start with that narration. Can we just agree that no group of actual people—not even a bunch of ten-year-olds at recess—names itself “The Team Jet Runners” or “The Turtle Cove Fin Club?” No one actually says, “What we do is fun.” No one actually prints up matching club t-shirts with the actual club name printed on them. And even if that does happen, nobody actually wears them!
What’s happening here is something closer to kitsch. In reference to these beer-drinking pals, I like Roger Scruton’s definition: “Kitsch is fake art, expressing fake emotions, whose purpose is to deceive the consumer into thinking he feels something deep and serious.” Because real camaraderie is actually very important, to see it imitated so badly makes one’s skin crawl.
It’s the same thing Jerry Seinfeld (the TV-show version) is reacting to when he argues with his girlfriend about that early ‘90s Dockers commercial: “If I had pants like that, I could sit on a porch and wrestle around and maybe even be part of a real bull session.” Perhaps it’s the irony that grates as well. The tone of these ads suggests that we’re supposed to identify with these “real” people, and yet there’s nothing the least bit real about them.
Okay, you may say. So they’re not realistic. Is that really so bad? This is just an ad, after all.
Keep in mind that people are going to have to watch this again and again. And this ad’s target market watches streaming TV a lot, which means there’s a decent chance they’ll be served this ad twice or more in succession. Which is what happened to me. After seeing this ad twice in the span of ten minutes, I actually turned off Hulu and opened a book.
The only sane response to ads like these, other than just turning them off, is parody. Which would have been a sharper approach for Michelob Ultra to take in the first place.
If anyone actually does make a parody video about “The Turtle Cove Fin Club,” do me a favor—will you?—and throw a couple of stoked-as-hell surfers into that gnarly shot of the Michelob Ultra wave. As the writers of these spots might put it, the ideas we have are fun, but they’re not the only things that keep us coming back.