Saturday, June 05, 2010

The Unbearable Being of Lightness

Most of you have no doubt come across the latest round of television ads from Miller Lite. You know, the ones where nebbish men are emasculated by impossibly hot female bartenders for asking for a light beer without caring about its taste (which "triple-hopped" Miller Lite supposedly has in abundance). The men without chests in these ads are the object of scorn and derision not only from the beauties behind the bar, but from all the other women in the bar as well. They're just the latest examples of the trend to portray men in ads as sackless wonders, a trend that really became noticeable during last year's Super Bowl advert extravaganza.

The clear message of these new ads is "Real men drink Miller Lite." That proposition is laughable on its surface and arguably wrong for so many reasons. The good news is that it appears that more and more men are recognizing this absurdity and no amount of television commercials touting the wonders of tasteless beer--and often insulting their intelligence in the process--will convince them otherwise.

Eric Felten explored the possible reasons why Light Beer Sales Are Sagging in yesterday's WSJ by sampling the product for himself:

So, at my local supermarket Wednesday evening, I grabbed up every domestic light beer I could find. They didn't have every brand, but the big boys were well represented.

P.T. Barnum would have admired the bunkum that goes into the packaging. Miller Lite is now presented in "vortex bottles." That is, the glass on the inside of the neck is rifled and this, they promise, improves the flavor of the beer. Coors Light brags of its "cold activated" bottles and cans: The mountains on the labels turn blue when the product has been chilled.

Who knew that Americans needed temperature-sensitive packaging to tell them when a beer is cold enough to drink? (It's always a bad sign when a company seems to think that its customers are morons.)

Taking notes in my blind tasting I quickly found myself running out of ways to describe vapid nothingness. Natural Light was "flavorless"; Michelob Ultra was simply "bland"; Coors Light was "blah"--though it did have the slightest hint of sweetness, as if an ounce of (bad) ginger ale had been diluted with pint of club soda. Miller Lite had a slightly foamier consistency (the Vortex bottle at work?) but no particular taste that could be discerned through the suds; Bud Light earned the honorific "least awful, but just barely."

Spending an afternoon tasting almost every domestic light beer out there? Talk about above and beyond the call of duty.

No wonder these beers are so heavily advertised. No one would think to drink them otherwise. And even if there are those who actually like the stuff, the different brews are virtually indistinguishable. Nothing begs for vigorous marketing like products that are otherwise undifferentiated.

All of which suggests that the great purveyors of industrial beer are likely to double down on the ad buys. For more than 30 years, they've pushed insipid suds with cartoonish spots celebrating the stupidity of men. Why change now?

Felten's right in not expecting the brewers of light beer to change their approach to pitching their swill. But what might have changed is the willingness of the beer buying public (especially men) to lap it up.