Thursday, July 31, 2008

Buying into Pabst Blue Ribbon

Farhad Manjoo penned a great review in last Sunday's New York Times Book Review of what appears to be a very important book: Rob Walker's Buying In: The Secret Dialogue Between What We Buy and Who We Are.

I was particularly intrigued by Manjoo's account of what Walker calls "murketing"-- the ad industry's "underground method of selling that depends on our complicit embrace of brands." By way of illustrating, Manjoo recounts Walker's story of Pabst Blue Ribbon, or "PBR," that is so beloved by today's punks. And I quote:

Consider Pabst Blue Ribbon. Beginning in the 1970s, the cheap beer that had long been synonymous with the blue-collar heartland began a steep decline, with sales by 2001 dipping to fewer than a million barrels a year, 90 percent below the beer’s peak. But in 2002, Pabst noticed a sudden sales spike, driven by an unlikely demographic: countercultural types — bike messengers, skaters and their tattooed kin — in hipster redoubts like Portland, Ore., had taken to swilling the stuff. When asked why, they would praise Pabst for its non-image, for the fact that it seemed to care little about selling.

Traditionally, a company that spots a sudden market opportunity responds by gearing ads toward the new customers. But Neal Stewart, Pabst’s marketing whiz, had studied “No Logo,” Naomi Klein’s anti-corporate manifesto, and he understood that overt commercial messages would turn off an audience suspicious of capitalism. Thus the company shunned celebrity endorsements — Kid Rock had been interested — and devoted its budget instead to murketing, sponsoring a series of unlikely gatherings across the country. Like “some kind of small-scale National Endowment for the Arts for young American outsider culture,” Pabst paid the bills at bike messenger contests, skateboarder movie screenings, and art and indie publishing get-togethers. At each of these events, it kept its logo obscure, its corporate goal to “always look and act the underdog,” to be seen as a beer of “social protest,” a “fellow dissenter” against mainstream mores.

Pabst’s campaign was designed to push beer without appearing to push it. To the extent that it conveyed any branding message at all, it was, Hey, we don’t care if you drink the stuff. To people sick of beer companies that did look as if they cared — don’t Super Bowl ads smack of desperation? — Pabst’s attitude seemed refreshing and inspired deep passion in its fans. Many customers did more than just buy the beer. Walker speaks to one who tattooed a foot-square Pabst logo on his back. Pabst’s low-fi marketing is “not insulting you,” the fellow tells Walker....

Walker doesn’t always pin down how much these marketing efforts contribute to the coffers of the companies that employ them. What he makes clear, however, is how thoroughly such campaigns invade the culture, especially youth culture. Members of a hyper-aware generation often hailed for their imperviousness to marketing are actually turning to brands to define themselves. Want to protest a “corporate” beer? Well, get a Pabst tattoo!

In reality, Pabst Blue Ribbon’s anticapitalist ethos is, as Walker puts it, “a sham.” The company long ago closed its Milwaukee brewery and now outsources its operations to Miller. Its entire corporate staff is devoted to marketing and sales, not brewing. “You really couldn’t do much worse in picking a symbol of resistance to phony branding,” Walker writes. But P.B.R.’s fans don’t care. In the new era of murketing, image is everything.

Pretty amazing, eh? Especially if, like me, you've been at punk events where everyone was consuming PBR like mad. Two things I find especially remarkable. First, that Pabst marketing studied Naomi Klein's No Logo to figure out how to sell PBR to the punks and the skaters. And second, that PBR has outsourced its operations to Miller. According to wikipedia, "In 2001, [Pabst] closed its last brewery in Allentown, Pennsylvania. The InBev purchase of Anheuser-Busch in July 2008 prompted Pabst to claim to be the largest American-owned brewer. In fact, it is a 'virtual brewer,' a marketing company whose 85 brands are brewed by either Miller or Lion."

"Sham" doesn't begin to describe it...despite what (Frank) Dennis Hopper says in Blue Velvet:

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