Hip Hops: Wieden & Kennedy's New Tricks Sell Old Beer
All over America, companies want people like 23-year-old Todd Nopp--badly. Not because the recent Reed College graduate has a 4.0 grade point average or a degree in chemical engineering--he doesn't. Rather, he and his peers, who can be found hanging out in Southeast Portland's Bar of the Gods, are one of the most sought-after consumer demographics on the planet. "It's something every marketer will tell you," says Jim Arndorfer, a researcher at Advertising Age magazine. "Younger consumers have been sucked away from mainstream products. And [mainstream brands] want them back." Good luck. Nopp is part of the most media-savvy and cynical generation in history, one that has been bombarded with advertising since it was in Muppets Hugaroo diapers. It's a generation that has seen Burger King and Mountain Dew logos seep into classrooms and onto public school buses. A generation that has seen Nike Swooshes find their way onto high-school basketball uniforms. Today's young adults are bombarded with some 3,600 commercial images each day, according to the now-defunct Washington, D.C.-based Center for the Study of Commercialism. That's more than twice the number their parents' generation saw. Nopp says he's so fed up with ads that he's taken to tearing the advertisements out of his roommate's magazines. "Every other page is an ad," he complains. In November, the job of grabbing this cynical generation's attention was given to Portland-based Wieden & Kennedy, a nationally recognized advertising agency with a successful history of casting a line into youth culture, reeling in attitudes and sensibilities, repackaging them as advertisements and casting the line back out as bait to hook the elusive twentysomething crowd. "[This generation] has been schmoozed and hyped to death their whole lives," says Steve Sandoz, Wieden & Kennedy's creative director. "But we're not your typical schmooze-you-hype-you agency. We want people to have an emotional connection to the ads." Wieden & Kennedy's latest challenge: Miller Genuine Draft-one of America's most mainstream beer brands, and one whose market share has settled to the bottom of the barrel. This is bad news in an industry where brands rarely, if ever, come back after losing favor with consumers. After 18 years of using the same ad agency--Bates Inc. of New York--Miller Brewing Co., a division of Philip Morris, showed up on Wieden & Kennedy's doorstep. The goal was to reach Miller's target market-21- to 24-year-olds. "We needed an agency that understood that target really well," Miller Genuine Draft senior product manager Bruce Winterton told Willamette Week. "Our market researchers went out and asked 20-year-olds what ads move them and speak to them," Winterton said, "and they always mention Nike and ESPN [W&K accounts]. Well, we said to ourselves, let's get that agency--let's go to where the source is." In the past six months, Wieden & Kennedy has created an ad campaign that has revived a dying brand. More importantly, the agency has made the most mainstream of commodities appeal to a generation that prefers "alternative" products. In the process, W&K has refined advertising for the '90s.The short version is that sales of Miller Genuine Draft have rocketed since W&K took over the account, climbing from $1.6 billion last year to an estimated $2 billion this year. "They have substantially improved the trend," says Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer's Insights, an industry newsletter in New York. "They're up 10 percent in supermarket sales alone in just one year. That's substantial. That's a big turnaround." Steinman says there are three reasons for Miller Genuine Draft's recent success. First, the giant brewer has stopped focusing on its smaller brands, such as Red Dog. Second, the company slashed prices by 3 percent. Third, he says, there are "those new commercials." Winterton agrees with Steinman about the commercials. "In some of our bigger markets, like California, we haven't slashed prices," Winterton says, "and sales are up. In our core markets our sales are up less due to pricing than to advertising." Winterton should fly back to Portland and thank Jeff Kling. Kling, 30, had been writing scripts for radio in New York before he move to Portland last year to take a job as a copy writer for Wieden & Kennedy. Alternating between pensive and explosive, between reserved and cocky, Kling talks loud and fast. Every other word is a curse, as in: "There's no fucking reason for Bud to be selling 38 fucking million barrels and for Miller to be selling 9 million. That's bullshit. Complete bullshit." In December, Kling and three other Wieden & Kennedy staffers were given the task of resuscitating Miller. "They came to us with a cry for help," says Kling's co-worker Jeff Williams. Wieden & Kennedy's research was, in many ways, typical for an ad agency. They became familiar with the product, looked at what the company had been doing with its previous advertising, visited Miller Brewing in Milwaukee and analyzed market-research data. Kling and his team also did some atypical market research. For starters, they subscribed to low-brow magazines aimed at the testosterone humor of macho beer-swillers. They also test-marketed Miller at some impromptu focus groups. "I showed up at this party," Kling says, "with two cases of Miller beer, and this mountain biker guy, this fucking Oregon cliche beer-snob idiot, starts ridiculing me for bringing that kind of beer to the party." Kling saw potential for a microbrew backlash. He says the defining moment of his team's research came when colleague John Boiler went to the Green Room, a blues bar in Portland. "Boiler was looking at the list of beers there, and he's like, 'Do you have any just kind of normal beers?' And the waitress said, 'I know. You know, every once in a while you just want a normal, American beer .'" "People have been taking beer way too fucking seriously," he says. "Miller is just a big-ass American beer."Wieden & Kennedy's Miller Genuine Draft campaign debuted on TV during the NBA All-Star game in February, with a corresponding insert in Sports Illustrated. The campaign includes eight TV commercials and full-page ads in Spin, Rolling Stone and other magazines. W&K wouldn't reveal the dollar amount of the media buy, but it's a major blitz, even by Madison Avenue standards. Encouraged by the initial success of the ads, Miller bumped its total advertising budget 30 percent in 1997, to $200 million. The TV commercials are shot at a few different sets (a trailer park in California, a brewery in Milwaukee, a bowling alley and a pool party in LA). They have several things in common. They're in grainy black-and-white and occasionally slip out of focus. Some of the actors aren't conventionally attractive. The cast includes seniors, pierced grungesters and minorities. There's no dialogue--instead, there are random splices of curious music, over-the-top crooning, jagged guitar and catchy tape-loop pop. The camera finds people lounging around, flirting, jumping in a pool. It's playful and goofy. The catchy ad copy plays the "anti-elitist" trump card. "It's Time to Drink Beer Imported All the Way from Milwaukee." "It's Time to Stop Reading the Label and Drink Some Beer." "It's Time for Beer to Quit Acting Like Wine." "It's Time to Shut Up and Drink Some Beer." "It's Time for Beer that Doesn't Belong on the Same Shelf as Bottled Water." "It's Time for a Good Old Macrobrew." The ad in widest circulation features a multicultural cast of hipsters clowning at a trailer park, pressing their lips against the camera lens and blowing. "It's Time for Better Beer Breath." Sandoz refers to the "Beer Breath" spot as a "realistic beer moment." "Beer breath," he says. "It's a reality from Beer World. It's part of beer--you get beer breath. It's something Bud would never say--they have these Disney-like ads with frogs while we're trying to do stuff that's relevant to real beer drinkers." "I think the simplicity of this piece is great," Sandoz wrote in a memo to Wieden & Kennedy partner Susan Hoffman. "They've made 'It's Miller Time' mean 'It's time for a no-bullshit beer.'" "These are the first ads in the beer category that are realistic about the way people drink beer," he told WW. "We were trying to get away from all this fake poseur stuff that's been beer advertising. You just have real people enjoying themselves." "The Wieden & Kennedy ads are definitely getting noticed," says Advertising Age's Arndorfer, "because they dirty up the picture of the well-lit, glamorous beer ads of the past. They're unusual for what you see on TV right now." Arndorfer says the W&K beer ads break out of the traditional mold in order to attract 21- to 35-year-old consumers, who "aren't carried away by traditional images anymore. These ads speak their language." Local ad man Pierre Ouellette, a partner at KVO Advertising, agrees. "The ads are funky and gritty, and they reach out across the gap to the common man by celebrating ordinary things," he says. "It's sort of like a populist revolution in advertising." The brilliance-and the absurdity-of the Miller Genuine Draft campaign may be the fact that the ads aspire to be something other than ads. "Our ads cease to be advertising," Kling says with a straight face. "It goes beyond the hackneyed realm of hyping product benefits. Advertising is supposed to be a pack of lies. We tell the truth."Sut Jhally, professor of communications at University of Massachusetts in Amherst and author of the 1992 book Codes of Advertising, says the Miller Genuine Draft commercials are part of a new form of advertising that emerged in the '90s--a form of advertising that W&K helped create with its Nike ads. Jhally calls the trend "anti-advertising advertising"--marketing that makes fun of advertising as a way to, well, sell products. "This is the new form that commercial culture is taking," Jhally says. "Advertisers are correctly recognizing the cynicism of their audience and joining them in their cynicism. It's a nod and a wink strategy that says, 'We're all hip.'" Traditionally, anti-ads are defiant or comically self-conscious about being an ad. Classic examples are Sprite's "Image is Nothing, Thirst is Everything" slogan or Nike's commercial where the infamous anti-establishment icon William Burroughs made fun of himself for doing an ad-while doing an ad. According to Leslie Savan, who for more than 10 years has written a regular column for the Village Voice on advertising, W&K's Miller Genuine Draft commercials refine the anti-ad ad. "Rather than attacking advertising or making fun of it out loud," she says, "these ads thoroughly drench themselves in the trappings of anti-commercial culture. They are awash in it. There are average-looking people. Fat people. Old people. There are kids with pierced belly buttons. There's underground music. They're low-key." "Rather than telling the audience that the ad is an anti-ad," Savan says, "it shows you that it's an anti-ad." This, she says, is far more powerful-and insidious-because when people learn by being shown rather than told something, "it seeps in much deeper." Kling is well aware of Savan's criticism. He thinks she has it all wrong. "Rather than sell, sell, sell," he insists, W&K advertisements simply connect activities like running and partying to the client's product, creating an emotional bond for the consumer between activity and product. "If in the process we happen to demonstrate, as in Nike's case, that sports are cool," he says, "I won't apologize."Wieden & Kennedy's aggressive strategy to craft ads that seem anti-commercial became clear earlier this spring when the agency contacted Mark Hosler. Hosler is the brains behind a San Francisco-based self-described "terrorist" music group called Negativland, known for mocking the commercialism that saturates American culture. Negativland's latest release is a single called "Truth in Advertising." It features the voices of panicky callers on a consumer hotline asking questions about impulse buying. Asking Hosler to work on a TV commercial is like asking Andrea Dworkin to pose for Hustler, or Bill Sizemore to collect signatures for a property-tax increase. It violates the basic laws of the universe. Jeff Kling tried it anyway. "We love you guys," Kling told Hosler over the phone after barraging him with e-mails and faxes requesting his help on the Miller campaign. "I asked them," Hosler later told WW, "'Do you really listen to what we do? Can't you tell that we're in opposition the world you're creating?'" "It was depressing," Hosler says. "What we do is about tearing that world down. [Wieden & Kennedy] are the blob that we are shooting arrows into. Here they were, trying to absorb us. I was depressed that they even thought to call me." In an attempt to convince W&K that it was absurd to pursue Negativland, Hosler says he told Kling about the group's upcoming record: a harsh sendup of Pepsi commercials. "I was amazed by their reaction," Hosler says. "Oh, Pepsi," Kling jumped in excitedly, "that's BBDO, that's their account. They're evil. They're the bad guys." Hosler was stunned to discover that W&K had divided the ad world into "good guys" and "bad guys." "I said to them," Hosler recalls, "'Well, you guys all do the same thing. I don't see a whole lot of difference.'" The folks at W&K, however, do see a difference. Kling points to an episode from the Miller campaign he thinks distinguishes W&K from other agencies. Last December, Kling was in Milwaukee, presenting the MGD ads to Miller. Representatives from Fallon McElligott, the Minneapolis ad agency heading a separate Miller Lite campaign, were there as well. "Presenting across from Fallon-that was the best illustration of how different we are," Kling said. "We looked like a bunch of guys who just walked in from high school-jeans, T-shirts, outdoor gear-and Fallon was over there in these Armani suits. And they don't even let the people who do the work present the work, they bring out the head honchos. Well, we're just ourselves. And there's no show. " Call it denial: Nothing bothers ad-copy writer Kling more than advertising itself. Kling is, in fact, explosive about the topic. "There's a lot of marketing bullshit," he says abruptly. "A lot of stuff you can't trust. Miller's old ads wanted me to believe that their beer actually tasted colder than other beer. Oh yeah, I believe that. And I'm fucking stupid." The new Miller Genuine Draft ads, he says, are different. "To say, 'It's time for better beer breath,'" Kling says, "that's giving people a peek behind the curtain. Somebody else might have taken an approach with this beer, 'We should probably try to tell people that we really taste good and stuff.' Bullshit! You know, this is what we are. At the end of the fucking day if you drink a bunch of these things, you're gonna reek. And we're just breaking it down to that real-life level." Real-life or not, the commercials are certainly turning heads. Bar of the Gods regular Nopp admits that the Miller Genuine Draft ads have broken through his anti-commercial antennae. "It's sort of disgusting how much I enjoy looking at those ads," he says. "But at least there's something interesting to look at on TV." Nopp says he's drawn to the "cheap looking" film and the low-budget font. Shilla Kim, a 22-year-old recent college graduate and Bar of the Gods patron, says: "Those commercials dignify Miller with a true grit image." Kling's got their attention. And that's half the battle.CONTEXT: Boasting Fortune 500 clients like Nike, Microsoft and Coke, W&K posted earnings of $63 million off client billings of $525 million in 1996, according to Advertising Age.Details magazine is planning a feature article on W&K's Miller Genuine Draft campaign for its August issue.In its June 16 issue, Time identified Wieden & Kennedy as "the most widely recognized" of the "Off-Madison Avenue hot spots."Nearly 50 percent of Spin magazine readers are under 21, according to Business Week. Spin is one of the publications running Wieden & Kennedy's full-page Miller Genuine Draft ads.Negativland's Mark Hosler told Willamette Week, "I was sad that Wieden & Kennedy called me. It means that our aesthetic is totally cool to use for a beer commercial. It's just an aesthetic now, and it obviously has nothing to do with my message."Average Americans devote roughly a year of their lives to watching television commercials, according to the Center for the Study of Commercialism."No one ad is so bad," clinical psychologist and author Mary Pipher recently told Business Week in a cover story on advertising. "But the combination of 400 ads a day creates a combination of narcissism, entitlement and dissatisfaction."The beer market is worth an estimated $50 billion in retail sales, or 192 million barrels, according to Beer Marketer's Insights.Nationally, microbrews make up 2.5 percent of the beer market. In Oregon, microbrew market share is between 9 and 10 percent.Miller isn't the only company that went looking for a new ad agency. Companies from Bayer aspirin to Domino's Pizza to Taco Bell Corp. to GTE Corp. all changed agencies in 1997.Fallon McElligott, the upstart Minneapolis-based ad firm, botched its chance to win the McDonald's account when it crafted ads for the Arch Deluxe featuring kids' negative reaction to it.Fallon McElligott's Miller Lite campaign-the one with the old couple making out-has boosted sales by 12 percent since January.Corporate America spends $150 billion a year on advertising-twice what it did in 1986.Sidebar Clear Beer? What makes Miller Genuine Draft tick? Well, from the perspective of the beer connoisseur, not a hell of a lot. Its name alone does not bespeak a great integrity lurking behind the label: After all, "draft" means "drawn," and although nobody ever bothered to regulate this fairly generic term, "draft" certainly implies that the beer is drawn from a larger-than-12-ounce vessel. Genuine Oxymoron. In the glass, Miller GD has a cracking head with large bubbles. A uniform Yankee Beer Blonde, it is undistinguishable by color from other American lagers. The nose is typical American beer spec, with a bready pale malt aroma waging an unsuccessful battle with carbon dioxide for olfactory pole position. Hops are entirely absent from the bouquet. In the mouth, there is slightest hint of extra bitterness. This may well be the footprint of chemical sleight-of-hand: Though GD's label touts itself as "contain[ing] no additives or preservatives," there are preservatives and then there are preservatives. Genuine Draft is packaged in a clear bottle, and to the average consumer, this clear packaging seems to be a plus: The clarity of the bottle implies purity and a lack of room for bad things to hide. An understandable sentiment, perhaps, but utterly without merit. Most beers come in brown bottles for a reason: Brown glass better protects beer from becoming "lightstruck," a condition that occurs when light attacks and breaks down the hops in a beer. Light-striking imparts a "skunky" flavor to a beer, a readily apparent defect in certain imports. How does MGD travel in clear glass and avoid smelling and tasting like the south end of a northbound skunk? I couldn't pry its makers' exact formula out of them, but one hop derivative, tetrahydroisoalpha acid, is well-known in brewing as a light-insensitive bittering agent. And tetra-hops, in addition to providing a light-stabilizing factor to a beer, have a higher apparent bitterness than regular hops. Do tetra-hops account for the modest hint of extra bitterness and curious light stability of MGD? All I could get from Miller GD spokesman Kevin Granger was that "light stabilization is done through the processing of the hops," a telling if not entirely conclusive comment. Do isoalpha acids qualify as cheating for a beer that claims "no additives or preservatives" on its label? It depends on where you stand. Isoalpha acids are among the many compounds that naturally exist in the hop bud and are frequently extracted, separated, concentrated and used for hopping at larger breweries. Almost all big American breweries rely on extracted hops of one kind or another, hoping to re-create desired whole-hop properties without the nettlesome inconsistencies of actual hops. If you feel that reconstituted-from-concentrate orange juice is an abomination against God and man, and that textured vegetable protein is a crime against humanity, then tetra-hops are indeed evil-in-a-drum. Otherwise, they're just another sign of the creeping industrialization of our food chain. Are they preservatives? Only to the extent that all hops act as beer preservatives. Are they natural? Well, kinda sorta. Local breweries, however, rely on a much simpler method of projecting an image of quality while preserving the freshness of their product: They make good beer and put it in brown bottles. -William Abernathy SIDEBAR Miller's Man Some baby boomers where shocked and offended in the late 1980s when Wieden & Kennedy plucked the Beatles' "Revolution" and used it to sell Nikes. Television historian Sut Jhally called the moment a "watershed" in advertising. "Anything became fair game after that," he said. Co-opting the rebellious rock songs of previous generations has become standard fare for advertisers. In order to grab the attention of today's twentysomethings, however, mining rock songs of the past doesn't always cut it. To establish credibility and befriend its target market, W&K also co-opts today's sounds. For the Miller Genuine Draft campaign, for example,Wieden & Kennedy bought the rights to a lo-fi pop song by Land of the Loops, an obscure band that currently records for an offshoot of Sub Pop records in Seattle. I talked to the man behind Land of the Loops, Alan Sutherland, about his leap from obscurity (he says his record received limited airplay in Seattle and in Boston, where he knew a DJ) to national television exposure. Sutherland, 28, recorded his last record, Refried Treats, at his home in Boston.Q: How did W&K get in touch with you? Sutherland: I was in Seattle playing the Sub Pop anniversary party. A fax came in. They also called my parents' house asking for the name of my publishing company. My parents almost hung up on them because [my parents] didn't know what [Wieden & Kennedy] was talking about. Wieden & Kennedy was under this big deadline. They needed an answer in four days. I asked them to send me a tape of the commercial, so I could see it. It was all these Gen-Xers sitting around. I was like, "Oh brother, this is so obvious." I was like, "Oh my God, I'm not gonna do this," but everyone was like, "You gotta do this. You should do it just to get free beer." Anyway, I was told by the lawyers at Sub Pop that I could stand to make a lot of money. They said it was a unique opportunity.Q: Well? Sutherland: They had to pay me a writer's fee and a licensing fee to Sub Pop. It was pretty good. A friend of mine, who originally recorded the song for me-I was able to give him some money so he could quit his job making burritos and run his studio full time. The clinching thing [for doing the ads] was finding out the other people who were doing the ads. There's Eartha Kitt and another respected guy who does what he wants in the industry. If those people can sell out, so can I.Q: What is the song about? Does it have anything to do with beer? Sutherland: It's called "Multi Family Garage Sale." It's about ending a relationship. Getting out of a relationship, you know in a breakup when one person is psyched and the other person is miserable.Q: Do you drink Miller? Sutherland: I do now. People buy me Miller. It's a running joke. I'm the "Miller Man."