Beer ads and the Superbowl (and the winner is…)

Beer_2You’d think the Superbowl was a contest between ad agencies, and of course it is.  After the ads, various media pundits are called upon to pundit (or punt it, as the case may be).  The results are almost always grim, a thorough going demonstration of how little we understand advertising and the culture for which and to which it speaks.

Eugene Secunda, an adjunct media studies professor of the department of culture and communication at New York University and former senior VP at J. Walter Thompson went so far as the suggest that beer consumers are "essentially nihilist" and "cynical, hostile, angry people. There’s a lot of mindlessness and destructiveness."


George Hacker, director of the Alcohol Policies Project for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said beer ads tell viewers that beer is "the raison d’être for being involved in the sport."


Pleading for mercy, one of our own, Linda Kaplan Thaler, CEO and CCO of Kaplan Thaler Group, said creators of successful beer commercials must "think of the mind-set of the person they are trying to reach.’

And on behalf of beer companies, I’ve spent a lot of time in bars talking to people about beer consumption.  The mind-set is not mindless or destructive.  No one I talked to thought that beer was the raison d’etre for being involved in the sport of football.  (Mind you, and to be fair, I did not interview anyone in an insane asylum.)

To sum up this research for Miller Lite, I wrote a little essay some years ago called "Riggins man" which seemed to me to capture the mind-set of beer consumers.  I can share it with you because Margaret Mark, an executive with the JWT, republished it in a book called the Hero and the Outlaw. 

Riggins man

Riggins man was first spotted in the early 1980s at an affair of state.  He was in fact discovered in a Washington stateroom filled with dignitaries, luminaries and celebrities.  The dinner was held to celebrate Reagan’s presidency and a new era.  This was Washington at its most sumptuous. The president himself was about to speak.  The crowd fell silent.

Almost silent.  From a far corner of the room came a rumbling sound, almost as if someone were snoring.  As it turned out, someone was snoring.  Someone had fallen asleep in front of the President of the United States on one of the great social events of the season.   The ceremonial order of Washington had been breached.  The new imperial presidency had been wounded.

People were outraged. Who dared affront the president?  Eyes searched the room for the author of this impertinence.  Where was the poor schmo who had pegged out in his salad?  He will be made to rue this day.  The crowd will set upon him.  They will hound him into a life of bureaucratic insignificance on the far reaches of empire.  This guy will be lucky to end up running a post office in rural Oregon. 

Two legs stuck out from beneath rich linen folds to mark the culprit’s lair.   Here the snorer lay.  A group gathered to look on in astonishment and indignation.  Someone peered under the table.  He was, first, puzzled, and, then, he smiled.  The word spread, and now everyone was smiling.  The snorer, it turned out, was John Riggins, running back for the local football team, the Washington Redskins.

The diplomatic incident de-escalated as suddenly as it had arisen.  Everyone suddenly stopped ‘recoiling in horror’ and ‘sniffing in disapproval.’  No one leapt to restore the honor of the president.  Security wondered whether they shouldn’t remove this "stupid, vulgar" man.  But everyone just looked at them, as if to say, "What, are you kidding?  Let him sleep.  He’s probably really tired or something."  In the blink of an eye, everyone went from high indignation to rye amusement, as if to say "Well, that’s John Riggins for you.  Riggins fell asleep listening to the president?  Wait till I tell the kids." 

What protected Riggins from punishment?  Partly, it was the old joke, "where does an elephant sleep?"  (Anywhere it wants to.)  But there was something else.  Riggins’s gesture tapped the way Americans define maleness.  Confronted by ceremony, formality, and politesse, the Riggins male is supposed to crawl under a table and go to sleep.

Football players, the theory goes, are works of nature untouched by civilization.  They are men who do not know and do not care for the niceties of polite society.  Football is, after all, the practice of barely mediated violence.  It is an exertion of a primitive kind.  Off the gridiron, out of violent male company, obliged to present a social self, these men are bored witless.  Remove this elemental man from his elements, and a nap is inevitable.

Almost every group of males includes a Riggins male and almost all of them surround him with ambivalence.  He is essential even as he is there on sufferance.  He will often react without thinking.  He will often engage in reckless behavior.  He will precipitate misadventure, fights, and commotion.  He is gives new meaning to the cliché, an accident waiting to happen.  He is tolerated by the group precisely because he has a Riggins quality, because he keeps the flame for the group, he is an elemental male. 

The classic representation of this character in popular culture was John Belushi, an actor who made the cultural form his "part" on screen and, tragically, off.  A somewhat more nuanced portrayal has come from Steve Zahn who played the part in SubUrbia (1997, Richard Linklater).  He is "Buff," a maniacal teenager who plays triumphant air guitar and taunts the world with mock but vivid threats of sex and violence.  He is exuberant, good hearted, red necked, and clueless.  Buff is never really sure what is going on around him, but he is quick to surrender to the impulse of the moment, whatever that might be.  His group of friends indulges him even when his behavior reflects on them.  He is a cherished member of the group even when at odds with it.

In Out of Sight (1998, Steven Soderbergh), Zahn (as Glenn Michaels) plays the role again, but Soderbergh, in his characteristically brilliant way, finds a way to undo the myth.  Glenn plays the thoughtless force, but it isn’t long before he finds himself out of his depth.  In a key scene, he is called upon to participate in a savage act of murder, and he is thoroughly undone.  The remaining scenes show him wandering catatonically in a blood stained sweater, still at a remove from the world around him, but not any longer because he is a vital, primitive force at odds with it.

I will spare you the strategic recommendations, but this will give you a small indication of the "mind set" of the beer drinker.  Now, clearly, Riggins man is in the Steve Zahn "format," an unusual male and a small part of the larger group.  But my argument was that all guys, when drinking beer, especially in groups of men, veer towards Rigginsness.  Even guys who are otherwise mild mannered and bookish. 

Now that we have the mindset, we can assess the advertising winners and the losers of Superbowl more carefully.

Winners (in this order)

1. Bud Light: Hidden beer in office (The beer hunts reveals the Riggins man within)
2. Bud Light: Save yourself (stealing another man’s beer is exactly what Riggins man would do)
3. Bud Light: Fridge worship
4. Bud Light: On the roof

Losers (in this order)

1. Michelob Ultra (girls don’t tackle Riggins men)
2. Miller Genuine Draft (Riggins man does not care about checkgirl’s approval.  At all.)

Honorable mention

1) Degree for men: the "stunt" spot is almost perfectly Riggins, including touch of self mockery at end. 

2) Ted Ferguson, Stunt man (this is another spot for Bud Lite, not shown during the Superbowl).

On the client side, the award goes to Marlene Coulis, 14-year A-B veteran, and the first woman — and first Hispanic person — to hold the top marketing post and Bob Lachky here predecessor.

I am unable to identify the agency responsible for this work.  If anyone knows, please let me know. 

Thanks to fellow Canadian and Montrealler and friend, Stephane (see his excellent comment below), I can now say that the agency in question is DDB, Chicago.  Now, does anyone know the names of the creative team? 


LaPointe, Joe.  2006.  Great Beer Ad Debate: Funny or Irresponsible.  February 5, 2006.  here.
(both quotes above from LaPointe)

Find all the ads from the Superbowl at ifilm here.

9 thoughts on “Beer ads and the Superbowl (and the winner is…)

  1. steve

    The Michelob Ultra really worked for me when the Riggins man delivered the big hit to the babe. I saw the role-reversal at the end as “lip-service” to the women-are-superior default zeitgeist in the creative community. It’s insincerity actually magnified the humor.

  2. Renee Hopkins Callahan

    Grant, is there a “Riggins woman”? Or are beer-loving females like me too small a subset of the market for any company to pitch ads to her?! 🙂 renee

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  5. dilys

    I think the “Riggins woman” may not be a beer drinker. There are Texas Riggins women who seem fearless and outspoken and dependent on no-one’s approval, though they often have a small, devoted following from both sexes. That sort drink margaritas or nothing (though not all MD’s are Riggins women).

    I think that yoghurt ad (Dannon) in which the two women, one African-American and one White American, coined semi-outrageous metaphors for how good it is, was an ineffective effort to tap how Riggins women talk among themselves.

    What a great example of a market-segment profile, Grant!

  6. Grant

    Steve, I agree. I did have a “course correction” feeling about it. Thanks, Grant

    Renee, This is a great question. I did a round of research around 1990 and at that point some college-aged women in Canada were saying things like, “well, the guys start drinking and before you know it a rugby game breaks out at your party. It’s really charming.” By the end of the century, there was evidence that college-aged women were drinking beer “like guys,” that is to say with gusto and a certain abandon. Some achieved a Riggins-ish status, though I think the center of gravity was not so far along. I think it would be hard to specify a single style of drinking now, but I think lots of women now drink in a “party hearty” manner, and they do so without compromising their gender credential, which is to say, I guess, that Riggins beer consumption is no longer gender specific. Thanks, Grant

    Dilys, This is interesting. I am certain that in a world of plenitude there is lots of regional variation, and in may be that in parts of Texas, certain definitions of maleness are so marked that most women are “just not going there.” I don’t know. It would be fun to do the research and find out. I once to an ethnographic project in Plano Texas, another in Dallas, and a third in ??? (what city is Lance Armstrong from?). My conclusion: Texas is endless interesting. Just when you think you’ve got it, it resists categorization. Thanks (and thanks for the kind words), Grant

  7. Renee Hopkins Callahan

    Dilys, I agree, although my experience with the Riggins-type female drinker in Texas is that she’s probably drinking straight tequila! There are at least two country songs I know of that discuss tequila in this manner as well — “Jose Cuervo” and “Straight Tequila Nights” (I think those are the titles).

    Grant, Lance Armstrong is fomr Austin, the place I am moving to this summer! Austin has a very different culture than other Texas cities.

  8. Tom Guarriello

    Gretchen Wilson’s 2005 hit “Red Neck Woman,” complete with longneck beers, is a testimonial to the female “puer aeternis” that is the Riggins woman. Even evident in NYC at “Hogs and Heffers” in the Meatpacking District.

  9. Stéphane

    Bonjour Grant,

    I’m in the advertising business and felt that the Michelob spot had something wrong, without being able to tell what was wrong.
    If I had to tell (in front of clients) I would probably argued that the message was there, that the understanding of the concept was bulletproof, that the ad was eyes-catchy, and on and on…

    But, there was still something wrong with that spot. Your “Riggins man” concept highlight the way that spot compromise the commun sense of masculinity, which is key in the beer consumption.

    What if the “Riggins Woman” was Paris Hilton and those kind of “over-the-top” women ?

    To answer your question, the credit for all those had should go to DDB/Chicago.



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