When a Detroit minister named Mayowa Lisa Reynolds went to her City Council last summer to complain about malt liquor advertising, she came prepared.The minister had conducted a survey in which she found a Colt .45 billboard in every square mile of the city. She looked in the nearby, majority white suburbs of Plymouth and Royal Oak.There were none.
Still, the Colt .45 billboards were relatively inoffensive by the traditional standards of malt liquor advertising.In one notorious 1986 print spot for Midnight Dragon, a voluptuous woman grasped a squat 40 ounce bottle above the tagline “I could suck on this all night.”In the 90s, charismatic gangster rappers incorporated 40s into their tales of murder and drug-dealing, driving malt liquor sales to all-time highs. In contrast, the 2009 Colt .45 ads merely featured a cartoon drawing of longtime spokesman Billy Dee Williams dressed in mauve and beige evening wear, accompanied by the slogan, “Works Every Time.”
Reynolds needn’t have worried. Several council members went ballistic at her findings. Alberta Tinsley-Talabi, who created a “Denounce the 40 Ounce Campaign” in the 90s to reduce alcohol consumption in Detroit, fumed that “every 20 years we have to start this fight again.” Reynolds pondered the meaning of “works every time.” “If women drink it, ladies will lose their virginity?” she asked. Councilwoman JoAnn Watson brought out the heaviest rhetorical guns: “This is killing our community. It’s an issue of racism and perversity.” (David Josar, "Detroit council takes aim at Billy Dee Williams malt liquor ads," The Detroit News, July 7, 2009).
For someone who knew nothing about the history of malt liquor, such strong denunciations might seem excessive. Racism and perversity? The Colt .45 billboards in Detroit are hardly more outlandish than other kinds of beer advertising.
But the anger from Tinsley-Talabi and Watson are not atypical.In the summer of 2008, at a Philadelphia bike shop called Jay’s Pedal Power, community protests forced the painting-over of a different graffitti-style billboard of young partiers drinking Colt .45. In June 2009, Colt .45 bus-shelter ads in St. Louis brought protests that the company was seducing young African-Americans into a life of alcoholism. "If you look at the black community, the only thing that's advertised is cigarettes and alcohol. Period," alderman Charles Quincy Troupe told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. "There's nothing that's advertised that puts forth any wellness."
Malt liquor clearly bears a stigma with African-Americans. But with the current “reboot” of an aging and stigmatized brand, Colt .45 is also trying to sell to a different demographic group, a group of people that sometimes appears to lack historical memory of anything that happened before last Tuesday: hipsters.
Like an earnest Mom trying to connect with her teenagers by using the latest slang, Colt .45 is communicating with the kids in a language that they will understand. And some of the efforts are impressive. The company has dialed-in promoters putting on parties and concerts in New York and L.A. with hot bands of the moment, like Das Racist, War Tapes, and the Rapture – with Colt .45 served on the house. Whatever your principles, it’s hard to turn down free booze and music, especially in the middle of a brutal recession.
Some of the other tactics are less auspicious. There’s the bizarre schwag, like special edition brown bags or a Colt .45 unisex robe (available now for just 30 dollars). And some painfully unclever cartoons, as when a young man seduces a total stranger, who has just had a terrible fight with her boyfriend, merely by knocking on her door and giving her a can of malt liquor. (Unless your taste runs to poverty-stricken alcoholics, courtship tends to be a bit more complicated than that, even in these informal times). In a different cartoon scenario with vague echoes of Buckwheat from The Little Rascals, a group of partygoers discover that they have run out of Colt .45 – until noticing that one resourceful drunk has squirreled away a dozen cans in his Afro. They’re forced to attack him to get their fair share.
The humorous portrayals of problem drinking are the work of a young white graphic artist named Jim Mahfood, who hails from the macrobrewery company town of St. Louis. On a promotional video produced by Colt .45’s ad agency Cole & Weber United, Mahfood explains the concept behind the campaign:
"The general vibe, of like, Colt .45, or even drinking 40s?…It just reminds me of being at art school, and people having like, a spontaneous party on the campus lawn, and just people drinking 40s and listening to a ghetto-blaster…When I was able to tell all my friends, especially my friends I went to art school with, that I was doing this campaign? And my comic book label was called "40 Ounce Comics?" I feel like I've been rewarded for all those years of drinking malt liquor."
(Cole & Weber United website, accessed October 1, 2009)
The artist's life turns out to be not so tough -- so long as you jettison any pretensions to originality or having something to say.
Companies are not always so ham-handed when it comes to marketing products to hipsters. The journalist Christian Lorentzen may have concluded that “hipsters” don’t actually exist, but Madison Avenue certainly thinks that they do. That's not praise, so much as an observation – advertisers are clearly targeting hipsters, a group loosely defined as young people with relative pop cultural sophistication, a surface detachment from middle-class values, and a love of kitsch and retro styles.
The resuscitation of Pabst Blue Ribbon offers the best example of how subtle the Don Drapers of today can be. P.B.R. went from a beer known for being cheap and bland and in seeming terminal decline in 2001, to a brand known for being cheap and bland that has increased sales by over 25% since 2008, in spite of raising prices in the middle of a recession. That’s on top of a roughly 60% increase in sales between 2001 and 2006, due to a stealth marketing campaign astutely analyzed by Rob Walker in his book Buying In.
As Walker shows, P.B.R. grew precisely because of the lack of overt marketing. A group of bike messengers, skaters, punks, and others who identified with P.B.R.’s low price and vaguely blue-collar image were also attracted by the fact that the beer’s corporate parent didn’t seem to care enough about it to run endless T.V. ads or miles of billboards. (Never mind that the actual owners were uniformly white-collar, having summarily fired 250 Milwaukee brewery workers and outsourced production to Miller in 2001 – PBR is a “virtual” brand that exists only as a marketing and distribution entity).When Kid Rock’s lawyer noticed the young, hard edged drinkers drawn to P.B.R., and thought that that his client might make an excellent spokesman, the company rebuffed his overtures. Instead, P.B.R. continued its unobtrusive promotions, like skateboard movie screenings, art gallery openings, indie publishing events, and the "West Side Invite,” where Portland messengers drank beer and played “bike polo” together – but without pushing the brand using ostentatious posters or signs.
Alex Wipperfürth, who consulted for P.B.R. during those years and has written a book that draws on his findings, describes P.B.R. customers as engaging in “lifestyle as dissent” and “consumption as protest” – embracing this seemingly forlorn beer as a kind of expression of “no future” solidarity. P.B.R. succeeded by willfully keeping its marketing efforts as neutral as possible, to perpetuate the beer’s underdog image.
Buying P. B. R. is not much of a form of dissent, in comparison with, say, marching across the bridge at Selma or smuggling in food to Anne Frank, but it is dissent nevertheless. As Walker observes, buying the P.B.R. beer brand, owned by a large holding company, is hardly a way to strike back against corporations – but it is a way to protest against the phony hilarity and brand saturation of conventional marketing. Incredibly, Pabst marketing whiz Neal Stewart shaped his unconventional campaign by reading Naomi Klein’s 2000 book No Logo. After finishing Klein’s impassioned protest against the pervasiveness of corporate brands, Stewart concluded, "Hey, there are all these people out there who hate marketing – and we should sell to them."
Though Pabst is in the same family of brands as Colt .45, the patronizing cartoons and that silly bathrobe suggest that Cole & Weber United hasn’t learned the lessons of subtlety in selling to young people who loathe pandering advertising campaigns. The central conceit of the hipster is that his bullshit-detector and cultural awareness render him too much of a special snowflake to be targeted by some agency’s dorky creative team. But even were Cole and Weber to replicate some of P.B.R.’s clever moves, it would be hard for it to replicate their results. Colt. 45 is not just another beer, as Watson’s accusation of “racism and perversity” suggests.
Instead of the vaguely blue-collar but essentially blank canvas on which hipsters can project a “no future” image, Colt .45 and malt liquor offer a very particular history. Originally invented during the Depression as a way to make a potent brew cheaply, by replacing some of the expensive malt used in conventional beer with less expensive dextrose, and using heartier yeast strains that result in more alcohol and less flavor, malt liquor has been eclipsed by its marketing. In the 1980s and 90s, malt liquor became a way for brewers to bottle black stereotypes and sell them, in a pomo echo of the minstrel tradition.
Introducing the Soul Grabber
Most modern beer drinkers would be surprised to learn that, despite its cheap-and-boozy origins, into the early 70s, malt liquor was sold as an urbane beverage for middle-class white males (hence the Country Club brand, and the strangely Fellini-esque quality of early Colt .45 ads(see example embedded below). In the telling of Kihm Winship, whose well-researched 2005 essay "A Story without Heroes: The Cautionary Tale of Malt Liquor" makes him the leading historian of the beverage, the marketing strategy began to change after 1963, when the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, and Firearms loosened enforcement of whether high alcohol content could be highlighted in ads. Cashing in on deregulation, Colt .45 and other producers began marketing malt liquor as a way to unlock your “inner animal” – with ad imagery featuring colts, bears, jaguars, or hounds. Animals became a visual euphemism for getting drunk, cheaply and quickly.
Malt liquor producers also noticed that African-Americans bought malt liquor in disproportionate numbers – although the marketers did not understand why.Even so, the majority of malt liquor drinkers were white, as was true even during malt liquor’s 1990’s peak. And so brewers were happy to market to members of either racial group. As you can see from these early Champale ads, the companies marketed the drink to black consumers similarly to whites, with images of well-dressed happy models buying an inexpensive champagne substitute.
Though targeted more intensively to blacks as the 70s wore on, malt liquor continued to be directed at whites too, through spokespeople ranging from a then-unknown Ted Danson to Robin Hood. When Budweiser made an ultimately unsuccessful attempt to launch a malt liquor in 1971, white college students and young African-Americans were the target audience, as you can see from this priceless 1973 film created for Budweiser salesmen. For anyone with a love of kitsch and retro styles, hipster or not, the film borders on the sublime – with moments like the earnest nod the African-American actress gives to the host as her boyfriend explains that “’bad’ means ‘good,’” and the unintentional laugh line “Anything with the Budweiser name on it has got to be good.” The film's equal opportunity message is that Bud malt liquor is what you drink “when you really want to get down to it” and get wasted at a party, whether you're white or black.
Similarly, if you compare two late 70s Schlitz ads, featuring The Commodores, The Platters, and Kool and the Gang, there was little difference in the way that Schlitz marketed its then-popular beer with the way it marketed its malt liquor. (Though the beer ad raises troubling questions about why Lionel Ritchie elected to use the same stylist as Cher in those years). Schlitz used the same "dueling bands" concept to market its malt liquor in an ad featuring the white Southern rockers the Marshall Tucker Band and .38 Special. Malt liquor was more or less like normal beer, but with a kick, epitomized by Schlitz’s bull.
Don't Let The Smooth Taste Fool You
It was in the 80s that animals gave way to stereotyped images of super-blackness –with the smooth hedonism of Billy Dee Williams, Fred Williamson, and Wilt Chamberlain, and the acrobatic dance moves of The Lockers. Unlike in the earlier ads, which placed black models drinking malt liquor as a form of "affordable luxury" in contexts like a wedding or a friendly bar, the new Colt .45 ad took place in a darkly-lit urban setting, with the debonair pitchman surrounded by sexy dancers, propelled along by a slinky synth-pop soundtrack, and surrounded by bizarre details like a braying horse and an exploding manhole cover. The companies were selling a new image of black identity – the handsome Don Juan who used malt liquor as a tool in his endless string of sexual conquests, on a ridiculous yet oddly alluring landscape. Using sex to sell beer was hardly limited to malt liquor companies by the mid-80s. What is notable is the new image of smooth black sexuality, epitomized by Billy Dee Williams – very different from the racially-muted images of the 70s ads, or this 1982 country-tinged Colt ad, which instead sells the product by fetishizing a missile-launcher.
The new association of malt liquor with urbane black sexuality might be explained as niche marketing – or even seen as a positive expression of black independence from white norms -- except for the fact that the advertising emerged in the 1980s, a time when Black America was under siege. By 1990 a black male between the ages of 15 and 24 was 16 times as likely to be murdered as the average American, an increase of 65% over 1980 levels. Swelled by increasingly harsh sentencing for crack-related and violent crimes, the prison population quadrupled in size between 1980 and 2000– from about 500,000 when Reagan took office to over 2 million when the second President Bush entered it. (Allen Beck and Paige Harrison, "Prison and Jail Inmates in 2000," Washington D.C.: U.S. Department of Justice). By 2003, an astonishing 46% of inmates were African-American, a group that comprised just 12% of the population.Though supposedly hostile to "socialism," Americans were only too happy to fork over $21,000 a year, per inmate, to fund what would become the largest prison system in the world (yes, even bigger than in Russia – or China), nearly half of which was composed of black men.Given this level of dysfunction, to turn a charismatic black movie star into a symbol of cheap, potent malt liquor was like rubbing salt in an open wound.
"I Don't Want To Kill A Man -- I Just Want To Kill A Can."
Though the United States has been a godsend for many immigrant groups from around the world, it was not unreasonable for young black men in the 80s to think they had been born into enemy territory. And much like punk rockers of the late 1970s in the U.K., early gangster rappers like Ice-T, Ice Cube and N.W.A. reacted to an apparently hostile universe by embracing a hard-partying image of violence and hatred of authority. They put out tracks like "Fuck the Police," "Cop Killer," and "Endangered Species," in jeering indifference to angry police chiefs or politicians like George H.W. Bush -- who were only too happy to deflect blame for the frightening violence in the streets onto the belligerent MCs.
So when rappers began incorporating malt liquor into their rebellious image, the brewers were quick to take notice. According to Kihm Winship, beer executive Minott Wessinger observed that hip-hop artists were already rhyming about Olde English and his own St. Ides. So he commissioned commercials with what turns out to have been a who's-who of 90s hip-hop, including Ice Cube and the Geto Boys, Cypress Hill, Tupac Shakur and Snoop Dogg, and Biggie Smalls. For anyone who likes funk, and the funk-derived sounds of gangster rap, the ads are superb. Like The Onion article in which Nike ceases shoe production to focus on making commercials, St. Ides might as well have been a rap label that incidentally happened to make malt liquor.
And the campaign really worked. Billy Dee Williams and dangerous hip-hop MCs had replaced animals as ubiquitous symbols of malt liquor, and lushes of all colors and creeds jumped at the chance to buy a fat bottle of gangster rebellion. (Never mind that an actual 1989 survey of real-life hard-drinking African-American men in South-Central Los Angeles found that less than one-fifth bought malt liquor, preferring instead cheap fortified wines like Cisco or Wild Irish Rose). (Didra Brown Taylor, Knowledge, Attitudes, and Malt Liquor Drinking Behavior Among African-American Men In South Central Los Angeles," unpublished dissertation, 2000, p. 4). Sales of malt liquor reached their all-time peak in 1996, garnering 4.7% of the beer market, or just under 9 million barrels, before crashing back to 2.7% in 2001. According to Benj Steinman of Beer Marketer's Insights, in 2008, malt liquor was still holding steady around 2.8% of the market, about the same share as in 1978. Like the NASDAQ or the Back Street Boys, malt liquor was a 90s phenomenon that quickly came back to earth after Clinton left office.
The fact that beer companies were using the image of the urbane Billy Dee Williams and professed-Crip Snoop Dogg to sell cheap booze with high alcohol content to blacks was not lost on activists, who termed malt liquor "liquid crack" and launched numerous protests and boycott threats. But even though the 12% of the American population that was black drank a disproportionate 1/3 of the country's malt liquor, that also meant that 2/3 of the stuff was consumed by people who were not black. (Figures from Beverage Marketing and the Center for Black Chemical Dependency). Some malt liquor drinkers were just after cheap booze, as they had been since the Depression, but the majority were college students or nine-to-fivers playing a game of racial masquerade. It wasn't just black people who liked to imagine themselves as Billy Dee Williams or Snoop Dogg.
By drinking a 40, anyone could pretend to be a black outlaw, someone who didn’t have to worry about getting up in the morning, someone who just didn’t give a fuck. In a variant on the minstrel tradition, these drinkers adopted a stereotyped black identity as a form of entertainment and psychic release.
A final irony is that even during malt liquor’s peak in the 90s, rates of alcohol abuse were significantly lower among blacks than among whites, Latinos, and Native American, according to a 2002 estimate by the Institute for Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism. But because malt liquor advertising so effectively sold images of blacks engaged in self-destructive hedonism, the beverage became a stalking horse for the many other injustices affecting black America.
And so that’s the legacy of “racism and perversity” that the seemingly mild Colt .45 ads invoke in middle-aged African-American political leaders. Perhaps the ethnically mixed hipster class, a generation younger, will respond to Colt .45’s with the same incurious shrug as Jim Mahfood. "Who cares about a beer ad?,” he told the Riverfront Times. “It's just Colt .45 and malt liquor in general has this immediate un-PC connotation of 'That's for people in the ghetto.’" "Un-PC” is one way to describe it -- a glib, inane way. Another is to observe that drinking malt liquor appropriates fantasy versions of black male identity drawn from a society that was locking up African-American men at a rate that would make George Wallace blush. For a brand seeking a PBR-like rebirth, through ingenious forms of quasi-invisible manipulation, Colt .45 is off on the wrong track.
The company needs the brand to be a blank slate, onto which it can subtly induce alienated and mock-alienated young people to project their own image of wage-slave solidarity. Instead, the company is aggressively courting hipster enthusiasm for a brand that’s become a symbol of African-American suffering. That’s unlikely to work even some of the time.