Anheuser Busch: Super Bowl Ad Campaigns
December 1, 2006
Just as the heroes from the Super Bowl routinely parade down Disneyland's Main Street the next day, so too do the team at Anheuser Busch routinely huddle in its St. Louis war room the day after the big game to assess what worked the night before and begin planning next year's line-up. Deciding what to run is an industry onto itself. Typically hundreds of storyboards are hurled around under a poster-size photo of a rhesus monkey with Marlon Brando's face. The actor had briefly considered rasping "Bud-weis-er," in a Super Bowl spot before deciding against it. Throughout the year, some 400 people at the Anheuser Busch's ad agencies and production companies work on what will air during those precious moments.
Around 25 commercials are produced from dozens of concepts, and screened before focus groups and Anheuser Busch management. One year August Busch IV and Robert Lachky, then VP of marketing and brand management respectively, liked the idea of a turtle running for president of the United Swamps of America but decided it was too political and potentially alienating. Commercials can be nixed or doctored at the last minute by unenthusiastic reactions in focus groups. "We don't wing it," Lachky says. "We can't."
Year after year Anheuser Busch wins the Super Bowl popularity contests because its quirky ads surprise and amuse and function almost like telenovas. One series, for instance, starred an English bull terrier with a football shaped head and a dark splotch around one eye. In no time, Spuds MacKenzie, "the Original Party Animal" (it was actually a she) became a cult figure adorning beach towels, key chains and T-shirts. By 1987 Spuds was the big money in Bud Light ads. As a "senior party consultant" in Hawaiian shirt and shades, or in a captain's outfit with silk ascot, Spuds always has his beer cooler and bevy of female friends nearby. In Super Bowl 1988 the dour dog-about-town careened off a 90-meter ski jump and lounged in a ski lodge to promote moderation of alcohol consumption.
Costuming and camera tricks make Spuds look the live wire. Publicity kept his momentum going in overdrive. Spuds toured with a trio of spandexed honeys, the Spudettes. Anheuser Busch orchestrated reports that he died in a plane crash, had been electrocuted in a hot tub or drowned while strapped to a surfboard during filming to keep the buzz.
This posh pooch sent Bud Light sales soaring. But by 1989 that dog had had its day. Critics complained that Spuds appealed to underage drinkers. Anheuser Busch fretted the dude would overpower the brand. Spuds was dispatched to the doghouse.
In Super Bowl 1989, Mars aired the event's first pet food spot (Whiskas), Toyota's feisty grandmas zipped their Camry into the fast lane, and Anheuser Busch launched the Bud Bowl I. Probably more people remember that simulated football game with helmeted long necked bottles of Budweiser and Bud Light facing off in a computer-animated gridiron battle than recall that the 49ers beat the Bengals, 20-16.
By then Anheuser Busch was a major Super Bowl presence, but the NFL had granted Miller exclusive right to refer to the Super Bowl in commercials. So Anheuser Busch concocted its own game, and ultimately institution.
In Bud Bowl 1, NBC sportscasters Bob Costas and Paul Maguire provided a play-by-play pun fest of the bottles passing, blocking and tackling. "Let's kick some Bud" exhorted coach Ara Barleyseekin to wide receiver Brew Beerson. A media guide provided bios of such characters as coach Vinnie Lembrewski from Hopstra U., defensive end Ed O'Budovich from LoCal State and team owner and "bone" vivant Spuds MacKenzie.
The coaches were short, round bottles; the long neck linemen wore protective collars. They even mimicked the NFL's use of Roman numerals. To keep the outcome secret, Anheuser Busch taped different ending. Bud won Bud Bowl 1, 27-24, with a last-second field goal.
None of this came cheap. Anheuser Busch spent $5 million on the computer-animated spots. It took ten hours to shoot two seconds of film. Anheuser Busch constructed a ping-pong table sized replica of Busch Stadium and stacked it with 16,000 individual Bud cans to suggest a crowd. It was, to a typical beer commercial what "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?" was to the old Looney Tunes, one analyst contended.
AB tied the Bud Bowl to a retail promotion that ultimately paid some lucky participant $1 million. But it was Anheuser Busch that won big. Viewers lapped up the parody, and bought 200 million extra Buds in January making for an unprecedented 17 percent spike. In the week after the game agency DMB&B ran an ad inviting others who liked "the way these guys played," to call their agent.
There were five Bud Bowl II spots in the 1990 game. Anheuser Busch had talked it up during the World Series. Brent Musberger and Terry Bradshaw hosted the tomfoolery. Some considered the sequel a costly fumble. Anheuser Busch knew otherwise. Its January 1990 sales ballooned 19 percent -making the Bud Bowl its most successful promotion ever. "Next year," kidded Anheuser Busch marketing manager Joe Corcoran, "we're thinking about selling ad time on the Bud Bowl." Instead, in Super Bowl XXV, Anheuser Busch bought seven spots for a record $8 million. Part of the action showed a hapless fan searching for his Bud Bowl sweepstakes ticket. In 1992 Bud Light finally defeated Bud and the brand's grocery store sales for that month soared 46 percent.
To keep the concept fresh Anheuser Busch kept drafting new players. Joe Namath and actor Corbin Bernsen joined the brew-haha as coaches in 1993. Bud won 35 to 31. Bud Bowl VI starred Marv Albert, Mike Ditka and Bum Phillips Light and VII featured wacky castaways Iggy, Biff and Frank watching part of the bottle battle marooned on a desert island. Then Iggy gets drafted into the game. At almost eight times the size of the average player, he powers an eighty-yard touchdown to push Bud ahead 16-24. By then the grudge match had lost traction and in 1999 Anheuser Busch moved it to the Web.
Another loony cast of characters arrived in the 1995 game. Anheuser Busch's marketing team immediately recognized the three famous syllables that its animatronic frogs croaked as pure gold. Over time the critters in their swamp or roadside sequentially crooned "Bud-weis-er," tried to cop a taste from a passing Bud truck, and got their tongues frozen onto beer cans. So endearing were they that the Center on Alcohol Advertising found kids likelier to recognize them than Bugs Bunny or the Power Rangers.
Meanwhile, Bud Light was scoring with an equally reptilian character, Mr. Insincerity who spewed bogus New Man sentimentality to finagle their beers. In Super Bowl XXX (1996) the Bud moocher, Johnny, tries to flatter Charlton Heston at a posh Hollywood party into relinquishing his beer. "You are so special. That chariot thing you did and the water stuff." That year, while the beer market overall fell, Bud Light sales and market share rose. It had become the nation's second largest beer as well as its fastest growing.
By 1997, Johnny and the frogs were losing heat. So Anheuser Busch stole across the pond to recruit Louie, a wise-cracking, curmudgeonly lizard so obsessed with snagging the frogs' endorsement contract for himself that he hires a hit-man ferret to do them in. Louie and his sidekick, Frank, the iguana, plot the hit ("every frog has to croak,") but bungle the execution.
In 1998, Budweiser paid more for eight minutes on Super Bowl XXXII ($16.8 million) than the average candidate spent to win a seat in the U.S. Senate. In a new spot, a guy shopping with his girlfriend follows some power cords under a skirt rack and finds other guys hiding out here with a TV and Bud Light ("Psssst! buddy...over here...in Petites.")
By Super Bowl XXXIII, weary of criticism that the swamp critters attracted underage drinkers, and antsy that its quarrelsome lizard would make Budweiser too downscale, Anheuser Busch wrote swan songs for Louie and the frogs. A one shot starred a lobster about to be whisked to a pot of boiling water in a restaurant kitchen. Frantic, he claws a Bud off a passing tray and brandishes it to hold off the chef. The crustacean backs his way to freedom, "lobster" is erased from the daily specials and a diner opts for the sirloin instead. In 2000, Anheuser Busch demonstrated it was still a master of animal magnetism. This time dog actor Rex can only cry on cue by drawing on his saddest memory - chasing the Budweiser truck only to smash head-first into a lawn-service van.
More than animals, 2000 was Anheuser Busch's answer to "Seinfeld." "Whassup" derived from music video director Charles Stone's two minute film "True." The DDB team had determined that Stone hanging with his Philadelphia pals, not doing much of anything, represented male camaraderie and friendship, two traits on which Bud hitches its wagon. Stone directed and starred in the adaptation. Young guys immediately cottoned to Whassup but older ones and wholesalers initially blanched. Soon they too were high-fiving the campaign and Bud for being cool. "Whassup" became as common as smiley faces once were, heard on late-night TV, by disc jockeys, on the Internet, in satires, in the news. Anheuser Busch even parodied itself in such spots as "Wasabi," set at a Japanese restaurant. In Super Bowl 2001, back aboard his spaceship, an alien disguised as a dog is asked what he learned on Earth. Whassuuuup" he answers.
The ads play up guy's guyness, or Anheuser Busch's viewpoint of it. While a girl agonizes over getting the right greeting card for her beau, he picks one up as an afterthought at a convenience store. Funny, smooth Cedric watches his amorous intentions foam away as his Bud Light explodes all over his dream date, and he mistakes a spa's depilatory room for a nude sauna.
Even Anheuser Busch's vulgar spots-a farting horse, crotch biting dog and lusty chimpanzee of 2004-did not damper consumer's gusto for its ad brew. For even as it indulged n adolescent humor to appeal to young men's prurient nature, it also celebrated the national spirit of patriotism (airport waiters applaud returning soldiers) and optimism (the donkey yearns to be a Clydesdale.)
Some say that Anheuser Busch's $2 billion annual marketing budget would make anyone a player. Car companies and fast fooderies with deflated results from inflated ad budgets put that myth to rest. It's the manner in which Anheuser Busch has used the Super Bowl to tap mainstream American humor, target "real guys" without undermining product quality, and running enough branding spots to appease retailers that make these beer meisters, admeisters too.
It's not just Anheuser-Busch's long-lived exclusivity that gives it "ownership" of the Super Bowl. It's its dedicated, systematic approach to tapping into the zeitgeist, remembering that its key customers are young men, and that they come to the game to be entertained, not lectured.
"The Super Bowl of Advertising: Are The Advertisers Still Winning The Game?" Bernice Kanner. New York: ANA, 2006.