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« Pope compares atheists to Nazis | Main | The All American Classic Look : Obviously, No Corn-rows. »

September 19, 2010


An excellent article that makes me want to know what motivated Andrew to write it - how he came to the subject. It reminds me of the marketing of certain brands of menthol cigarettes to black communities. In regular drives between Western MA and Princeton in the early 70s I saw hoardings for Newport while passing Newark and Trenton, and others with the mysterious slogan, "Kool is Coming". No Salems, thanks!

I agree with Narayan. This is an excellent article. Andrew, the free lance writer has regaled us with a professional grade essay on a very interesting subject. I wonder how we can disseminate this for a wider audience. Thanks, Andrew.

Based on the title, I thought it was going to be about the production of malt liquor itself, but was fascinated to learn about the marketing behind the product and the cultural underpinnings of the ads. The 1973 ad was hilarious and sobering at the same time, amplifying the social memes of the era-Blaxploitation, caged feminist waiting to unleash her inner not-so-feminist beast, where to start?

"That’s unlikely to work even some of the time."

It seems like it's going to be wildly successful. You provide evidence that the very popularity of malt liquor amongst blacks works to their detriment, but hipsters aren't aware of this. It's likely that all they're aware of, like those early marketers, is that malt liquor is popular with blacks. Lacking the second half of the equation (that its popularity is a net negative for society), hipsters likely understand their consumption of Colt 45 to be a signal of solidarity with the oppressed, common man.

Good stuff! Anyone else think that the Colt 45 Cartoons owe a lot to the strip Boondocks?

Overnight the post has transformed, and to some degree conformed. The footnotes were wonderful! Rather, the fact that there were footnotes was wonderful. Anyway, this is a terrific post.

Mahfood's cynical question could be given a wider scope: "Who cares about a[ny] ad?" I mean, really, an ad is supposed to promote an immediate connotation. The immediacy is achieved at least as often by sounding the subconscious stereotypes we harbor as by deferring to express desires. Nobody buys a Lexus thinking, "Gee, I'd sure love to own a car that a gravelly voiced Reagan sound-alike would recommend." I bet there's a legacy of racism at work there, too.

The account of PBR brought to mind a neighborhood bar, the Hotsy Totsy. Back in '02 the bar earned a place in the East Bay Express "Best of" issue. The review in that issue hinted at tension among competing demographics of customers: "It's best to head into the Hotsy Totsy without any pretensions. For one, the regulars are probably sick of people who stop by just to check it out because they've seen it written up like this." I don't know about then, but now, following a major renovation from dive to dive simulacrum, the lone tap pours PBR. A recent Yelp reviewer nails it:

When a friend who likes some of the more disgusting dive bars I've ever been to suggested it, I figured I'd humor him and check out the peculiarity. Little did I realize that at some point recently the bar had been converted from whatever it probably was into a yuppy hot spot. Fancy booze and cocktails on the menu (although it did have PBR on tap, probably for any hipsters that accidentally wandered in - although it did not look like a hipster hangout).

It is nearly impossible, in other words, to leave your pretensions at the door.

But you know, even expensive booze and its cognates are sold as vehicles of transgression. I was hoping to find a typical page of advertising in Wine Spectator to make the point, but found instead a story in its sibling publication, Cigar Aficionado. Get a load of this:

Shawn Carter--best known to the world at large as Jay-Z, rap megastar and reigning monarch of hip-hop--extracts a Zino Platinum Crown Series Rocket from its sci-fi-sleek metal tube. He trims the end and fires it up with a palm-sized blowtorch lighter covered in black reptile skin of some sort.
Then he exhales a cloud of smoke with an air of satisfaction--right there in his New York City office.
Yes, Manhattan has strict no-smoking laws. But the outlaw impulse dies hard. After all, this is the king in his castle--or at least the business version of it.

The origins of the impulse? "Jay-Z maintains a sense of detachment from his own drug-dealing past. It provided the street cred he needed to launch his rap career." So if I have this right, the well-off readers of Cigar Aficionado, too, can enjoy the trappings of royalty--that's a $32 Zino--but without sacrificing street cred or outlaw impulse.

Great work, Andrew. Since malt liquor is, for reasons you explain so well, shorthand for a snicker for me, I expected something much less substantive. This article is fascinating social commentary and makes excellent use of media and original materials to prove your points.

"In a variant on the minstrel tradition, these drinkers adopted a stereotyped black identity as a form of entertainment and psychic release." Top drawer stuff.

Thanks for your comments everyone.

Narayan, I came to the subject in part because when I was in college in the mid-90s, malt liquor was so popular as a mildly rebellious gesture among students, and still a political hot-button issue. And then when I heard about this new campaign, it made me curious as to whether it was still popular. Also, my wife showed me some of these old commercials on YouTube, which led me to the Winship essay and the ambivalent pre-80s history of ML, which I found fascinating.

Sujatha, isn't that 1973 ad amazing? Why does that poor trombone player have to wear a dunce cap? And you're absolutely right to note that Bud was clearly trying to target women as malt liquor drinkers at the time, whereas it became clearly more of a macho, hyper-masculine drink later on. Also worth checking out is the bizarre Redd Foxx Colt .45 ad from the early 70s, in which he drives onto a ski slope with the "Fellini-esque" pitchman:

Anon, it's possible that hipsters may be as indifferent to the peculiar racial legacy of malt liquor as you say. But I'm quite sure that they're aware of the association with gangsterism, and that there is an implied "I'm a badass" in drinking a 40 -- which might lead them to think more about the peculiar racial history of the drink. It's certainly not the "blank canvas" that PBR was in 2000.

You may be right about the Boondocks, Vicki. In some of his other ads, Mahfood brazenly lifts his style from graffiti art, in the service of malt liquor advertising, so it wouldn't be surprising that he didn't have an original approach with his cartoons either.

And yes, Dean, you're right that ads are inherently manipulative, and we may do best just to ignore them. (For example, I've certainly gotten people on this blog talking about Colt .45 brand, even though that of course was not my intent). I guess that not all ads, nor racial associations, are the same. And I figure we should have our eyes open as to how are buttons are being pressed.

(And sorry about losing the footnotes -- I just didn't like how it looked as a blog post, so re-formatted to make more magazine-y).

Great stuff - via Andrew Sullivan btw.

The funny part to me is the weird landscape that comes into being when advertisers continue to advertise in black neighborhoods for a product being consumed mainly by whites. At a certain point don't you just focus on tv, internet, and radio rather than trashy billboards in neighborhoods that don't support the product very much and generate hostility from the local polls and residents? Leaves me wondering if they are actually there for white drivers are cruising by on the highways, on their way from the burbs to downtown or something...

I also think PBR wasn't a success as a result of marketing - it's stealth marketing might be sustaining it longer than usual, but in the late 90's hipsters in williamsburg were already drinking the stuff (we were poor then; the hipsters who replaced us were much wealthier and continued the tradition to keep their street cred). Back then hipsters were more or less off the mainstream radar (due to lack of wealth, for starters) but today's generation has codified the dogma and has a very different relationship with marketing and branding in general, if only because so many of them are employed in design and marketing!

Also think the best example of nihilistic 40oz lifestyle by whites is the movie "kids".

Anyway, that's my 2cents. Great stuff!

I've been drinking PBR because it's cheap and taste better than other brands like Miller and Budweiser. Drinking it was never a statement against the big brewers or corporations... it was a matter of the beer being cheap, delicious, and a nice back to the occasional shot of Jameson. I don't think most folks who drink PRB think they're sticking it to the white collar corporate world, I think they're getting a good beer at a good price.

Sid, I don't think that Andrew is claiming that "everyone" who drinks PBR is doing so for hipsterish reasons. When our family first arrived in the US in the early 1980s, my husband's choice of ale was PBR. I don't think he had ever heard of hipsters or knew much about the marketing culture of the US liquor industry. He drank it for the same reasons as yours - taste and price. What Andrew does describe (and correctly) is that PBR's success among hipsters is that the company chose to go low key in advertizing by avoiding a blitz in the mainstream media. The two different types of PBR's clientele, the cool seeming hipsters and the plain old beer lovers do not contradict what Andrew has argued.

I can't agree that PBR is delicious, Mr. Vicious, because I've never tried it, but I love the idea of a quaffable complement to Jameson. I also recall the arrival of PBR in local East Bay bars a few years ago. It was definitely received with a chuckle of irony by the students and academics in these parts who, at some level, regard themselves as tastefully cutting-edge. (Ourselves, I should have said.) The target wasn't the white collar mannequin types who party with Bud or MGD, but the local beer snobs, those of us who demand the overpriced "artisinal" brews.

Dean, did you notice that Andrew's post got linked by Andrew Sullivan on the Daily Dish? That, and links by several other sites (3 Quarks Daily was the first to do the favor), big and small, including Twitter and Facebook, got this excellent essay the exposure it deserves.

By the way, I am not much of an aficionado but I do enjoy a chilled beer from time to time, especially with pizza or calozone, for some reason. The only beers that I like are Heineken, Dos Equis, the Indian Kingfisher and the Thai Singha (all lager). I have tasted other varieties at the behest of my husband, children, friends and bartenders. But those are the ones I really like. What does that say about me, provided that what beer we like, says "anything" about us.

Here's some info about the Crazy Horse Malt Liquor protest:

Read it and decide why yourself why Didra Brown Taylor's dissertation is unpublished.

Oddly enough our current "craft" 22 ounce bottle began its life as a malt liquor bottle. Decades back, a quart bottle of malt liquor was 99 cents. When brewery costs went up, the marketing folks decided they still needed a 99 cent malt liquor package. The result was 99 cent malt liquors bottles downsized to a brand-new 22 ounce container.

I didn't notice the Sullivan link. Wow. Again, bravo, Andrew (Rosenblum, I mean)! I'd pass on Heineken--too cloyingly malty--but not the others you favor. It isn't what beer we like, but that we like beer, that says anything about us.

Brian H. adds an interesting historical datum. Just try to find a 22 oz. bottle of the "craft" stuff these days for under four bucks! Some range upwards of eight, nine, ten... Just yesterday, though, I savored a bottle of Sierra Nevada Torpedo, from a 24 oz. bottle. Two extra ounces, same low-ish price. Even so, the cost per ounce surpasses that of a six-pack.


This is an excellent article. It reminds me of Thunderbird wine. This goes back to the 1960s and early 1970s. It was advertised on television by the the handsome, elegant, and sophisticated actor and celebrity, Cesar Romero.

"Low-end fortified wines (also called Gutter Punk Champagne, street wine, goon, bum wine, bag wine and poverty punch) are inexpensive fortified wines that typically have an alcohol content between 15% and 20% ABV. These wines often contain added sugar, artificial color, and artificial flavor, and are generally consumed solely to induce drunkenness.

"Due to their perceived popularity with alcoholics, many such are sold in skid-row liquor stores or online."

well your work is pretty good and i really like your post . .every thing in the post is awesome . . . .gr8 job . . .keep sharing :)

Nice point you have here. This stuff regarding alcohol ads should be regulated properly but if the profit seekers still based their judgement on how much they can earn from them, it seems that it will be helpless. Hope they can read your opinions here.

What will be your harvest this year, my friends?

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