Will: A cold can of 'America'
WASHINGTON – Because advertising is a barometer that often accurately measures America's psychological atmosphere, attention must be paid to this: From May 23 through the presidential election, Budweiser beer will bear a different name. Eager to do its bit to make America great again, the brewer will replace the name "Budweiser" with "America" on its 12-ounce bottles and cans.
The Financial Times says this is "a bid to capitalize on U.S. election fever." (Before the Chicago Cubs bestrode the world like a colossus, T-shirts proclaimed "Cubs Fever: Catch it — and die.") A beer bottle metaphysician at the brewer of soon-to-be America says, "We are embarking on what should be the most patriotic summer that this generation has ever seen." This refers to the once-in-a-generation, light-the-sparklers opportunity to choose between two presidential candidates roundly disliked by American majorities. It is enough to drive one to drink something stronger than beer.
Budweiser's name change is part of an advertising campaign featuring the slogan "America is in your hands." The brewer says this will "remind people ... to embrace the optimism upon which the country was first built." So, between now and Nov. 8, whenever you belly up to a bar, do your patriot duty by ordering a foamy mug of America. Nothing says "It's morning in an America that is back and standing tall" quite like beer cans festooned with Americana by Anheuser-Busch InBev, a firm based in Leuven, Belgium, and run by a Brazilian.
The beer brands most familiar to Americans — Budweiser, Miller, Coors — are foreign-owned. Want to win a round of cold Americans this summer? Wager that no one in the saloon can identify the American-owned brewer with the largest market share and say what that share is. The answer is: D.G. Yuengling & Son with just 1.4 percent of the market, slightly more than Boston Beer Co., which makes the Sam Adams brand.
Years ago, historian Daniel Boorstin said that whereas Europeans went to market to get what they want, Americans go to discover what they want. Nowadays the market comes to customers everywhere via ubiquitous advertising, precious little of which is designed to create desires for new products. Beer commercials are not supposed to make viewers thirsty or to prompt them to buy beer rather than Buicks. Rather, the commercials' primary purpose is to defend and expand a brand's market share. They do this by giving particular beers distinctive personalities. By doing so, they stroke consumers' psyches, drawing beer drinkers into what Boorstin called "consumption communities." Consumers are moved to covet a product less for its intrinsic qualities than its manufactured meaning. Advertising does this by reducing its information content and increasing its emotional appeals.
Budweiser is the "king of beers" — we know it is because Budweiser says it is — but will not be saying so during this advertising campaign. The slogan will be replaced by "E Pluribus Unum." This is Latin for "Perhaps a gusher of patriotic kitsch will stanch the leakage of our market share to pestilential craft breweries."
America has more than 4,000 craft breweries. Most American adults — 235 million of them — live within 10 miles of a local brewery. And more than 40 percent of Americans 21-to-27 have never tasted Budweiser. They prefer craft beers (a craft brewer ships no more than 6 million barrels a year; Budweiser shipped 16 million in 2013, down from 50 million in 1988), which perhaps explains Budweiser's current weirdly truculent commercials, such as this: "Proudly a macro beer. It's not brewed to be fussed over. ... It's brewed for drinking, not dissecting. ... Beer brewed the hard way. Let them sip their pumpkin peach ale." And this: "Not small. Not sipped. Not soft. Not a fruit cup. Not imported." Not cheerful.
Last year, craft brewers, which are increasing at a rate of almost two a day, won 12.8 percent of the $105.9 billion beer market. And 2015 was the sixth consecutive year, and the 12th time in 15 years, in which beer's portion of the nation's alcohol revenue declined as more Americans drink cocktails like the characters on "Mad Men."
If, however, these aspiring Don Drapers hoist an America, they will have in their hands bottles and cans adorned with snippets of American Scripture — the Pledge of Allegiance, "The Star Spangled Banner" and "America the Beautiful." The psalmist said that joy cometh in the morning. Fat lot the psalmist knew. Joy cometh in the evening when you crack a cold can of America and anticipate the thrills of the looming "patriotic summer." Go ahead. It's 5 o'clock somewhere.
George Will is a columnist for The Washington Post.