1414 words (5 minute read)

The Beer Commercial: A Barometer for Sexism

Compounding their confusion about sex and their role in relationships, men are being exposed to more and more advertising that objectifies them or presents them as incapable of performing even the most basic tasks.

Advertising is designed to sell products and services: to convince the consumer to open their wallets and make a purchase. However, there is a multifaceted subtext to all advertising. Whether it’s on TV, in a magazine, or popping up on a computer screen or mobile device, advertising also sells and promotes gender roles, stereotypes, labels, and cultural norms. When a marketing team works to persuade the target demographic to buy a Lexus, SKYY vodka, or a bottle of Chanel perfume, the manner in which the company attempts to sell the product or service – that is, the images they use to persuade the viewer to purchase the commodity – reflects the standards and viewpoints of the culture as a whole. Advertising is a mirror that reflects where society has been, where it is now, and where it is going. As society and culture evolve, so does the content of advertising. As gender roles shift, so do male and female stereotypes in advertising.

One reality that hasn’t changed much is that women in beer commercials (when they are present at all) are typically sex objects. Just watch any TV sporting event; even the most casual viewer will be all-too-familiar with the objectification of women in the accompanying beer commercials. We've grown accustomed to the hyperbolic claims and unrealistic expectations: men are manly, women are hot, and everyone at the party has the time of their lives.They're all beautiful and no one gets stupid-drunk on all the beer being thrown around.

It's hard to top the hyperbole of the Old Milwaukee Beer ads of the 1980's that insist "it doesn't get any better than this." It comes off almost as a challenge. Really? This is the best it's going to get? Ever? One typical ad from 1984 shows a group of men on a fishing boat in Maine, going to a clambake. Another has a group of men (and only men) air-boating through the Florida Everglades. They all end with a pristine sunset and one saying to the others, "You know, guys, it doesn't get any better than this." They were handsome commercials shot in idyllic locales with lots of campfires showing a bond of brotherhood cemented by great beer. They were beautifully earnest and sincere.

Someone must have realized, though, that there might be a few folks who could possibly disagree with their claims of "it doesn't get any better than this." They may have gotten flack for their boast when their fantasy world that "doesn't get better" didn't include women. In response, Old Milwaukee kept the tag line, but stopped taking it seriously. In 1991, the ideal world of bucolic wilderness and male friendship gave way to turbo-charged, bizarre, wet-dream male fantasies. The new commercials still had men in a pristine outdoor setting, with someone claiming "it doesn't get any better than this." But instead of ending the commercial with that tag line, the new campaign starts each commercial with the iconic line: then the voiceover kicks in, and says, "But Doug Patterson was wrong."

Thus was born the infamous Swedish Bikini Team beer commercial format. In one commercial, a crate of lobsters just falls from the sky (rather than the men catching their own seafood, as they did in the original version), to which the voiceover proclaims, "It just got a little better." Then, to oppose the notion that the best life has to offer is a bunch of men hanging out, the Swedish Bikini Team rappels, boats, or parachutes in; and it gets "even better." Finally, to top off the fantasy, a truckload of Old Milwaukeeshows up. (It seems that the best life has to offer still must include beer!)

In yet another of these fantasy commercials, life for a group of guys camping on a beach suddenly gets "better" when a rock stage suddenly appears with a hot band playing. Simultaneously, the Swedish bikini team appears, hoisting surfboards, and an old treasure chest of Old Milwaukee beer washes ashore.

It was obviously not meant to be taken seriously, but one must wonder what the ad writers were overcompensating for when they felt they not just had to include women, but a "team" of dancing, bikini-clad, platinum blonde, Amazonian-proportioned Swedish women. The Swedish Bikini Team (played byAmerican actresses, for the record) took on a life of their own, making appearances at events, in television shows, film, and even a Playboy spread.They were a meme all of their own, and they were, of course, offensive. Workers at the brewery filed a harassment lawsuit; the National Organization of Women protested. One wonders why Sweden didn't protest. The campaign lasted less than a year, but it was incredibly popular while it lasted. Not only does sex sell but, sadly, male fantasies apparently rarely get any better than blondes and beer.

Beer commercials have often come under fire for being sexist, so much so that it’s practically an industry standard rather than a controversial statement. It may in fact be that the creators of beer commercials are playing to a stereotype that does not exist (and perhaps never did) or that beer commercial creators are attempting to hit a target demographic of sexist male consumers that are purely a figment of an advertiser’s imagination.

Heineken’s DraftKeg advertisement was almost universally declared one of the most sexist beer advertisements ever produced. At the same time, the advertisement was pannedby almost entirely male critics. Bob Garfield of Ad Age wrote of the advertisement, “…it is not out of self-righteousness, but out of genuine astonishment that we castigate, denounce, and generally hold up to ridicule anew ad… that is arguably the most sexist beer commercial ever produced.” The DraftKeg advertisement implied that the perfect woman would have her essential reproductive organs removed and replaced with a keg. Given the cultural history of men being in control of both a woman’s body and her sexual rights, this advertisement could hardly be seen as anything but bizarrely sexist.

Indictments similar in tone, if not incontent, came from David Groshoff of Huffington Post in regards to a more recent Miller Lite “ManUp” Campaign. Miller Lite released a sequence of commercials regarding men engaged in non-stereotypical male behavior, such as carrying a bag or wearing a scarf. The commercial would end by ridiculing these men and telling them to “man up” with a Miller Lite. Groshoff noted that while viewers have the ability to choose most types of media they consume, commercials reside in a unique territory –a viewer is forced to watch them. (Yes, times have changed, haven’tthey?) He believed commercials such as the “Man Up” campaign served to “heighten viewers’ insecurities that even the slightest deviations from… gender norms merit ridicule.”

Meanwhile, Tim Nudd (Ad Week) called Bud Light’s “Advertising Executives” a sexist advertisement made by “total pigs.” Interestingly, this ad broke the third wall. It depicted the perfect idea of a woman, “doing all the chores, leaving her husband free to hang out with his friends, and frequently surprising him with cases of BudLight.” However, once the commercial ostensibly came to a close it panned out to a room of advertising executives, clearly moved by the contents of the commercial. Is the commercial a meta-commentary on how out-of-touch these clearly older advertising executives truly are? Or is the commercial, as Tim Nudd believes, yearning for a simpler time during which women were merely around to support their men? Unfortunately, the advertisement itself leaves the answer to this question ambiguous.

Another controversial commercial, Miller Lite’s “Catfight,” angered viewers to such an extent that it was actually pulled from the air. The commercial depicted two young, busty women getting into a tremendous and messy catfight over whetherMiller Lite “tastes great” or is “less filling.” Again, Bob Garfield of Ad Age noted that male staff members had conflicting reactions to the commercial. “When the AdReview staff… encountered ‘Catfight’,” he wrote, “we were doubly embarrassed… that the sponsor could be so cheap and vulgar, and secondly that we, the entire staff, leered appreciatively at the babes.” This internal conflict and self-awareness is perhaps one key to understanding the path that advertising has taken.

Next Chapter: Tina's Story: You Can't Change a Man