SPECIAL REPORT

Pitching a patriotic brew

Nationalism is the potent ingredient of beer ads

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 3 1999
SPECIAL REPORT

Pitching a patriotic brew

Nationalism is the potent ingredient of beer ads

Anthony Wilson-Smith May 3 1999

Pitching a patriotic brew

SPECIAL REPORT

Nationalism is the potent ingredient of beer ads

The scene: a setting that could be Anytown, Canada (but was actually shot in Toronto). A man on the street kicks a can, and someone else swipes at it. Other participants join in, a noisy crowd gathers, and Gary Glitter’s pulsating arena-rock classic Rock and Roll (Part II) gathers volume. A trench-coated businessman leaps in, defending a net—consisting of a bike rack—with his umbrella as the stick and his briefcase as pads. Suddenly, someone yells “Streetcar,” and—in the manner of pickup hockey games through time immemorial—everyone disperses. A voice intones, “Anything can happen ... out of the blue.”

When that ad for Labatt Blue lager first aired in February, 1998, during the Olympic Winter Games, it struck a chord with enthusiastic viewers—becoming one of the few commercials to cause viewers to turn the sound up, not off. The spot introduced Labatt Breweries of Canada’s continuing “Out of the blue” campaign, rejuvenated the brand (which Labatt executives concede had been “languishing” and “increasingly perceived as an old guys’ beer”), and saved the multimillion dollar account for the Toronto office of Ammirati Puris Untas, the agency that produced it. “We kind of told the [agency],

‘Guys, this is crunch time,’ ” recalls David Kincaid, Labatt’s vicepresident of marketing. “Very occasionally,” notes Stan Sutter, editor of Toronto-based Marketing Magazine, “you see an ad that jumps off the screen at once—like the one for Blue street hockey.”

Despite the ad’s lighthearted air, its conception speaks to the careful research and balancing act that brewers and agencies conduct each time they plot a new campaign. In this case, says Kincaid, “we told the agency we wanted everyone to have fun.” But in advertising, “that can be the most terrifying phrase you’ll ever hear—because the stakes are so high,” says a smiling Bill Durnan, president of Ammirati in Canada—and son of the great Montreal Canadiens goalie of the same name. In this case, the irreverent air appealed immediately to Labatt’s target market of males between the ages of 19 and 29, and also to women and older consumers.

The task of being amusing and appealing to one group without alienating others is no mean feat—as both Labatt and Molson Breweries have found to their chagrin. A later “Out of the blue” ad, featuring four young people who commandeer shopping carts and race them through the streets, was withdrawn after criticisms that it encouraged irresponsible behaviour. Similarly, Advertising Standards Canada, the industry watchdog, chastised Labatt recently for its ‘Welcome to your Carlsberg years” ad in which two men carry

stop and yield signs—presumably purloined from streets at some point—from their houses for a lawn sale. The standards council said the ad displays “a disregard for public safety.”

And Molson has recently dumped a yearlong ad for Canadian, its top-selling product, that featured the tag line “An infinite number of monkeys on an infinite number of typewriters will eventually define all that is Canada.” The problem, industry insiders say, is that people noticed the ad—but had no idea who sponsored it. The monkeys are gone, replaced by a series that builds on the double entendre “Here’s where we get Canadian.” The idea, says Molson CEO James Arnett, “is to build on scenes and images that are unmistakably Canadian.” In the first ofthat series, the sight of an icicle melting causes a group of bar-goers to decamp at once to the outdoor patio. That theme, says Sutter, “looks like a pretty successful return to the values that worked for them in the past.”

The notion that Canadian nationalism is hip among young drinkers forms the centrepiece behind marketing at both companies. Molson builds unabashedly on the down-home patriotism of the Canadian name, while Labatt goes at the issue sideways— highlighting the country’s obsession with hockey. Its new ads focus—without saying so—on the fact that this has been the worst decade for Canadian teams winning the Stanley Cup in this century. In the first spot, a group of Canadian friends is turned away at a Detroit bar while a group of hockey players is allowed to stride in. The friends discover the Stanley Cup in the players’ waiting taxi, take it back across the border—and kick off a series that will see them in different adventures across the country. The final segment, says Labatt president Don Kitchen, who will not give details, “is a one-time only ad that will knock the socks off everyone who sees it.”

Labatt’s exclusive sponsorship deal with Hockey Night in Canada guarantees it ad supremacy over Molson during the playoffs, which continue for about two months. But Molson is battling back in subtle fashion. Its separate sponsorships with all the Canadian NHL teams in the playoffs allow it to display its logo on rink boards and ice—so that Labatt is paying for television coverage showing images of its rival. And, says Arnett, “we will be very present in many other places during the same period.” But, says Kitchen, “I tell our people not to bother sweating the small stuff: for the next two months we have the big picture, which is the games.” Until, that is, the equivalent of a streetcar comes along.

ANTHONY WILSON-SMITH