Are the days of T&A over for beer?

Sounds unlikely. Yet that's what August Busch IV, president of St. Louis, Mo.-based Anheuser-Busch, suggested in the U.S. last month during a speech to the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As).

Sounds unlikely. Yet that’s what August Busch IV, president of St. Louis, Mo.-based Anheuser-Busch, suggested in the U.S. last month during a speech to the American Association of Advertising Agencies (4As).

Amid the flap about Janet Jackson’s breast-exposing ‘wardrobe malfunction’ at the Super Bowl, the head honcho of a company that’s synonymous with ever-raunchier ads took a vow of future wholesomeness.

‘Something is happening in the mood of the country that all marketers need to mind. People are choosing to draw hard boundaries of what’s tasteful and distasteful,’ warned Busch.

Meanwhile, the Adolph Coors Company announced it would ‘tone down’ commercials featuring the busty twin sisters who promote Coors Light, according to a recent article in the New York Times.

Maybe so down south, where Howard Stern and other gutter-mouthed jocks are being fired, seven-second broadcast delays are on the rise and this year’s risqué Victoria’s Secret TV fashion show was cancelled due to public outrage about rampant indecency.

But industry insiders in Canada – despite the CBC’s delay on Don Cherry – mostly consider the current spate of puritanical American hand-wringing irrelevant on this side of the border.

‘The leash is very short down there because of how strong a position the FCC [Federal Communications Commission] has taken and how they’ve jacked up the fines and really taken broadcasters to task,’ says Toronto-based David Jones, director of public relations for Molson.

‘But the U.S. and Canadian markets are very different. Most Canadians didn’t really see the Janet Jackson incident as anything worth getting in a flap about and they found the hue and cry kind of laughable.’

Molson’s position on populating its beer ads with scantily clad women is unmistakably pro, judging by the bathing beauties in its recent spots for A Marca Bavaria, the blond bombshell in its Bubba campaign and the latest ad for Molson Canadian, which broke last month.

Created by Toronto’s Bensimon*Byrne and entitled ‘Why Don’t I?’ – as in why don’t I drink beer from countries other than Canada? – the 30-second spot features a model in hip waders and little else sashaying down a runway. In one of two executions, she is bare-chested except for strategically placed suspenders. In the other, she wears a bikini top.

Jones says the first version is intended for post-9 p.m. airing, while the more covered-up execution airs before 9 p.m. and during hockey games, which Molson considers family viewing.

Has the new ad prompted criticism? ‘No more than the usual criticism for any of our ads,’ says Jones. ‘We air a lot, so we get criticized a lot. We certainly try to be edgy and relevant to our target market [of young males]…. The whole point is to have those beer drinkers go ‘hey!’ and we’re not necessarily going to apologize for that. But at the same time, we don’t seek to offend people.’

Meanwhile, Canada’s other major beer company, Labatt Breweries of Canada, has drawn heat with a commercial for Blue Light that broke during the Super Bowl and will continue throughout this summer. Set in a bar and created by Toronto shop Grip, it shows two women sharing lip gloss by sharing a kiss, leaving a gaggle of men agog.

Was the sharp response to the ad good or bad for the brand? ‘It was far more noticed than most others we’ve done in recent years,’ says Toronto-based director of public affairs Nigel Miller.

But, he concedes, ‘we have heard from consumers more often in the last year or so about that aspect of our advertising than we heard before, so we do need to listen.’

How about St. John, N.B.-headquartered Moosehead Breweries’ recent spot for Moosehead Light featuring nearly nude women and men skinny-dipping in a quarry?

Sales and marketing VP Steve Poirier says he agrees that ‘every now and then, some ads take it over the top…. I think if [sexual content] is part and parcel of the brand’s image and it make sense to have it in the storyline, it’s fine.’

Nevertheless, Poirier describes new ads for all three of Moosehead’s brands as focusing on non-controversial aspects such as nature, refreshment and coolness. These include two executions for Alpine Beer which broke on the final episode of Friends earlier this month, shots of a moose in the wild for Moosehead Lager and a similarly bucolic setting for Moose Light whose theme is ‘It’s in your nature.’

None of the previously mentioned commercials has contained sexual content as blatant as last summer’s transit posters from Toronto’s Amsterdam Brewing Company. Life-sized and created by Publicis, they referenced the Dutch capital’s red light district with depictions of prostitutes posing in windows with bottles of Natural Blonde beer.

Amsterdam president Jeff Carefoote says the ad, which was ‘an artistic reflection on the brand’s heritage and the liberal attitude where it comes from,’ is currently ‘on hiatus’ and may return this summer.

Also pushing the envelope was a recent Ontario radio spot for Guelph, Ont.-based Sleeman Breweries that was set in Merry Olde England. In a burst of double entendres meant to promote the brew’s new ‘heritage’ containers, the ad’s male characters extolled the beauty of ‘Lady Anne’s new cans.’

The ‘tongue-in-cheek ad probably did deviate from our norm,’ says marketing director Greg Newbrough, ‘because historically we haven’t tended to go to the edge.’

More typical for the brand, he says, is Sleeman’s new commercial for its low-carb Clear brand, which broke in March and eschews sex altogether, emphasizing the beer’s lightness by having gravity-defying bottles float in air.

Despite all the pious lip service among American beer marketers, people in the know aren’t anticipating any significant or lasting about-faces when it comes to sexy advertising on either side of the 49th parallel.

‘Sex has been a part of beer advertising for a long time and it’s naïve to expect that it will vanish any time soon,’ concludes Hamilton, Ont.-based Stephen Beaumont, editor of World of Beer.

But is sex synonymous with sales? Strategy asked three agency types whether the relationship between T&A and suds should fizzle out.

Rob Guenette, president, Taxi, Toronto

To me, the question shouldn’t be whether sexiness in commercials has gone too far. It should be about going back to first principles and addressing what’s the role of the brand in an ad’s story line? So if extreme nudity or sex is integral to the story, then so be it. If it’s not, then it shouldn’t be there.

I think where eyebrows get raised and the discussion gets heated is when it’s gratuitous. If it’s coming out of nowhere, then it’s not going to do the brand any good, so it shouldn’t be there. It’s just a very simple, lazy ploy. So again, it’s about the fit.

We always have to first and foremost be true to who we’re talking to because in theory, if your media buy is sharp and you’ve done your strategic brand platform and you know exactly who you’re talking to…then you better be true to that target.

I guess it’s the old adage that too much of anything is no good. When a particular style or a particular voice becomes dominant, then it just becomes too much. Too much of anything becomes irrelevant. So if indeed the envelope is being stretched too much, I don’t think it’s the degree, I think it’s the frequency.

People are either underthinking [beer ads] and underestimating the consumer by using a lot of sex or scantily clad women, or they’re over-thinking them and making them so damn complicated that nobody gets it.

I find it a little curious that often this debate is not amongst the people being talked to, but rather the ancillary crowd.

Nancy Vonk, chief creative officer, Ogilvy & Mather, Toronto

I think people are sick and tired of all the jiggley-ness. It’s just so boring to fall back on olden days, when lots of T&A was thought to equal lots of beer sales.

Call me not the target if you will. But come on, it’s just so dumb and so lazy to fall back on the old formula for the umpteenth time. It just seems like a desperate grab for attention.

There have got to be a million better ways to do beer commercials than that jaw-droppingly bad Moosehead ad with women in underwear jumping into a quarry.

In fact, there was much rejoicing when Bud Light changed focus and found wonderful territory in comedy and a different approach to being liked and remembered.

[The emphasis on sexy beer ads] could be a conservative reaction, i.e. the times are tough out there, so let’s go with the tried and true. And ‘sex sells’ is about the oldest notion there is in advertising. But women today are going backwards so fast culturally that we’re looking more bimboesque than before all the progress of the ’70s.

And these kinds of beer ads feed right into that.

It’s especially dumbfounding in a category like beer, where everything should be wide open and absolutely anything could happen in the advertising. I’m not saying it doesn’t sell. I’m saying it’s just so unbelievably boring.

Andrew Barrett, senior business planning director, J. Walter Thompson, Toronto

Like any other packaged good, with beer you’re basically trying to find a shared value between your brand and the target audience you’re trying to appeal to. If that’s the younger male beer drinker…certainly sexually themed advertising does build a bond with them because it’s a big part of what their lives are about at that age.

In other words, a big part of [beer ads] is meant to appeal to the sexual side of males and how they fantasize about women.

But what you’re also seeing in today’s beer market is quality becoming more important. The younger male beer drinker is being offered more choice than he’s ever had before and he’s becoming more discerning in his tastes.

So more and more young males want to hold up a beer that’s seen as having discernibly greater quality because the brand you drink says a lot about you and your personality. And that’s forcing some of the mainstream domestic brands to come up with more of a multiple message.

So some of what some people might see as a retreat [from over-sexed ads] is just these brands adjusting to the marketplace.

A recent example of this has a Coors Light truck stopping in the mountains with a lot of cheerleaders. It’s a mix that speaks to both quality and some of the sexier elements of the brand.