How beer commercials for sports denigrate women
By WILL NEWBRANDER
A quick glance through the Beer Institute’s advertising and marketing code yields some reassuring proclamations: “Brewers should adhere to contemporary standards of good taste.” “Advertising themes…should reflect the fact that brewers are responsible corporate citizens.”
A few vague edicts from the code condemn “lewd or indecent” images and “sexually explicit” activity. Item 2(b) unambiguously forbids any use of Santa Claus in marketing efforts. But the otherwise thorough code, generated and enforced by the “recognized and authoritative source” on the brewing industry, is oddly silent regarding the portrayals of women in beer advertising.
In a study on gender portrayals in commercials, University of North Texas media professor Stephen Craig wrote, “[Advertisers] construct the ads in ways that reinforce the image of gender most familiar to and comfortable for their target audience.” For beer companies, that target audience is males between 21 and 34, a demographic that can only be reliably reached during televised sporting events according to Lara Zwarun and Kristie Farrar’s study Doing What They Say, Saying What They Mean: Self-Regulatory Compliance and Depictions of Drinking in Alcohol Commercials in Televised Sports. Beer companies aim accordingly. In 2006, Anheuser-Busch dedicated nearly 80% of its advertising budget to televised sporting events.
When Ad Age released its rankings of the top 100 ad campaigns of the 20th century, the beer industry was, unsurprisingly, well represented. By age 16, children list beer ads among their favorite commercials according to a study by Katherine Covell, Karen Dion and Kenneth Dion titled Gender Differences in Evaluations of Tobacco and Alcohol Advertisements. Most regular viewers of televised sports can easily recall the beer ads currently airing. But what messages are these prevalent and popular ads conveying about gender roles and what impact are these messages having on women and society?
The marriage between beer advertising and televised sports is a long one. In 1947, the New York Yankees and Brooklyn Dodgers met in the first televised World Series. Because television was not yet commonplace in American living rooms, New York City bars were packed with viewers and beer companies quickly realized they could reach consumers at the very moment and place they were deciding what to drink. By the end of that year, numerous brewers had taken to the airwaves and because networks initially struggled to find quality programming to fill airtime, sports received heavy play: Harry Caray hosted a sports program in St. Louis sponsored by Griesedieck Beer. Detroit Tigers telecasts were sponsored by Goebel Beer. In an episode that typified the industry’s infancy, according to the All About Beer Magazine article Beer and Television: Perfectly Tuned In by Carl Miller, the Boston Red Sox offered Narragansett Beer television sponsorship rights for free saying, “We don’t know what we’re doing, and neither do you.”
In the early 1970s, beer advertising underwent a strategic shift. Previously, the ads had touted only taste which many brewers thought to be the lone distinguishing factor. The new wave of marketing sought to cultivate brand identities based on image and lifestyle yielding slogans like “Miller Time” and “This Bud’s for you.” Around that same time, Miller planned to unveil a low calorie beer but wrestled with positioning the brand so that it would not be perceived as “sissy beer.” Miller’s ad agency ultimately decided to use “tough guys” to hawk the new brand and over the next ten years sports icons such as John Madden, Billy Martin, Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford, Dick Butkus and Boog Powell joined the “Lite All-Stars” roster.
To give the beer a macho spin, Miller promoted its Lite beer as “less filling” rather than focusing on its calorie count. In one ad, spirited Boston Celtics coach, Tommy Heinsohn, and NBA referee Mendy Rudolph argued the “great taste—less filling” debate. When Heinsohn refused to concede that Miller Lite’s primary trait was, in fact, “less filling,” Rudolph ejected him from the bar.
Thirty years later, the same debate continued appearing in Miller Lite ads, but the similarities ended there. During the 2002-2003 NFL playoffs, an ad nicknamed “Catfight” debuted. In the commercial, two women’s heated “great taste—less filling” debate spilled into a fountain where they wrestled and, amidst shrieks and body-slams, ripped away each other’s clothes with plenty of slow motion lingerie close-ups. The commercial has largely come to represent the era of beer ads that Ad Age media critic Bob Garfield despairingly dubbed “boobvertising.”
This style of beer ad has brought consumers infamous campaigns like Old Milwaukee’s Swedish Bikini Team, the Coors Light twins and the St. Pauli Girl who gradually evolved from a cartoon figure on beer bottles to a calendar pinup. While it is no secret beer ads target men, there is a deeper purpose to the strategy. In her study Women and “Body-isms” in Television Beer Commercials, Christine Iijima Hall wrote, “Advertisements sell products because the products ‘promise’ the purchasers something…the promise of sex and fun is common in television beer commercials.”
These promises often play out in the strategic construction of a commercial. While analyzing beer commercials gleaned from 70 hours of sports programming during her study, Iijima Hall found that shots focusing exclusively on specific body parts of women occurred nearly twice as frequently as similar shots of men. Additionally, she observed that women were far more likely to appear in bathing suits but less likely to wear professional attire. These findings coincide with the trends observed by Craig. He wrote: “[Women] were generally seen in roles subservient to men, or as sex objects or models in which their only function seemed to be to lend an aspect of eroticism to the ad.”
But other than manipulating male beer drinkers with hollow promises, do these ads adversely affect women? Jennifer Berger, executive director of About Face, an organization that seeks to help women and girls understand and resist harmful media messages, believes they do. “Ultimately, these ads lead women and girls to believe they’re not good enough,” she said. “These depictions, both the way the women look and the roles they take, can lead to life-long consequences for real girls and women—from eating disorders to concerns about femininity, depression and obsession with appearances rather than accomplishing things.” Directly observing these byproducts led Heather Miller-Kuhaneck to launch WAMPOW (Women Against the Media’s Portrayal of Women), a grassroots Website that seeks to educate people on the dangers of these portrayals. “I used to work with children and hated hearing girls age 8, 9, 10 talking about dieting and being fat,” she said. “It made me crazy.”
Berger points to the boom in plastic surgery as an indication that media messages, like those in beer commercials, affect women of all ages, not just younger women. “What people have to understand about self-esteem issues is that women are conditioned to think of themselves like they think of their bodies,” said Berger. “It doesn’t go that deep with men.” A recently released Brigham Young University study supports Berger’s assertion. The study used brain scans in determining that healthy women of normal weight who denied having body image concerns, in fact showed activity in the portion of the brain linked to issues of self-worth. They were shown pictures of overweight people and told to imagine someone saying, “Your body looks like that.” Men had no such reaction.
In recent years, a new trend has emerged. While approximately two thirds of beer ads have consistently relied on humor, the depictions have changed. Iijima Hall observed “themes of men portrayed as engaging in physical labor, spending much of their time either outdoors or in a bar, and remaining confident, cool and detached in relationships with women.” In short, the men in beer ads tend to display an aloof “beer and bros” attitude while the women are depicted as nags interfering with the fun. For example, a Keystone Light ad featured an awkward male character who was shunned by women. But upon drinking Keystone Light, he suddenly found beautiful women on each arm and declared, “I hope my wife’s not watching!”
Because this now-prominent type of ad features clothed women does not necessarily indicate progress according to Sheila Gibbons, editor of Media Report to Women which covers issues relating to the media’s depiction of women. “It’s substituting bad taste with bad taste” she said. “Sure, there are women who just roll their eyes and think, ‘what a bunch of dorks’ about the guys in these ads, but the danger is that you can have people—men and women—that expect such behavior is normal. It’s very subtle.”
As Gibbons notes, this style of commercial can impact both men and women by skewing their perceptions of healthy relationship roles. A study by Neil Postman, Christine Nystrom, Lance Strate and Charles Weingartner titled Myths, Men and Beer: An Analysis of Commercials on Broadcast Television addressed this nuance:
“…the beer commercial ‘man’ is a stereotype—or rather a composite of stereotypes, and a highly selective ‘composite’ at that. We found no sensitive men in beer commercials—nor any thoughtful men, scholarly men, political men, or even complex men. We found only one-dimensional men—which is, of course, what stereotypes are. And matching them were one-dimensional women.”
(Dos Equis’ popular “The Most Interesting Man in the World” campaign emerged after this study, and although the main character is portrayed as a beacon of refinement, the tone is clearly satirical.) According to Berger, these stereotypical men are not merely harmless characterizations. “Besides simply being misogynistic, I think it definitely brings problems to men and women’s ability to have close relationships,” she said recalling a Super Bowl commercial for FLO TV in which broadcaster Jim Nantz followed a beleaguered man forced to shop with his girlfriend rather than watching the game and urged the male character to take off his “skirt.”
However, not everyone is so unequivocal in their distaste for the current state of beer ads. Heidi Dangelmaier is the founder of 3iying, a branding and marketing firm specializing in responsible and effective advertising to girls and women. “No!” she exclaimed when asked if she found today’s beer advertising offensive. “They’re just doing what they know. It’s silly and it’s money poorly spent but, no, I’m not offended.” 3iying purports to be the authority on the emerging female consumer—a claim Dangelmaier bases upon her 1400 days of immersive study with “millennial female designers” between 15 and 22. “Everyone looks at today’s women as victims,” Dangelmaier said. “The ones I’ve worked with are smarter than that. We’re exposed to so much reality already. We go to [celebrity gossip Website perezhilton.com] and see stars with no makeup. We can see things for what they really are.”
Dangelmaier is hardly an ad industry shill. In a submission to Business Week, she and “The Girls of 3iying” condemned campaigns by Abercrombie & Fitch and American Apparel as much for their raunchiness as their misguided marketing strategy. “The complaints to me seem to come from historical, passive aggressive feminists who want young women to be angry and miserable,” said Dangelmaier. “This feels like talking about an ex-boyfriend. That’s so old and sad—we’re ready for the next age of feminism.”
Whether it is beer ads’ portrayals of women or simply their marketing strategies that one finds offensive, there is general agreement that action is the most effective method for bringing change. “Push back from the public is what it will take,” said Gibbons. “We should stay out of trying to regulate the creative aspects of advertising. But if people express their disgust, and if more guys got involved, that would really help.”
But what about the Beer Institute’s seemingly robust advertising code and the industry’s attempts at self-regulation? In their study, Zwarun and Farrar wrote:
“In the case of alcohol advertising, it is possible that strategic ambiguity in the codes enables the alcohol industry to manage societal and governmental pressure while still creating persuasive selling messages, but also allows for portrayals that can be followed literally while still containing or hinting at the types of images and messages they are supposedly prohibiting.”
Lester Jones, the Beer Institute’s chief economist and senior director of research services, said, “The marketing and advertising code is a voluntary code of conduct. Consumers are able to file complaints about ads and those complaints are reviewed by an independent board.” Jones declined to comment on the assertion of Zwarun and Farrar that the code is primarily in place to appease societal and governmental pressure. However, in every complaint and ruling listed on the Beer Institute’s Website, the independent board ruled in the beer company’s favor that the ad in question complied with the code (In a 2008 complaint, the board did not issue a ruling because MillerCoors elected to remove the ad voluntarily).
Dangelmaier says the ads will ultimately change when someone offers up a better idea on how to do things. “It’s pretty simple really,” she said. “If someone can tell them how to sell more beer, they’ll listen.” Conversely, one can assume that if the ad campaigns hurt sales, the companies will also take note. Miller-Kuhaneck, the WAMPOW founder, takes this tact. “I run the errands in my house including buying the beer for the football games. And I won’t buy Coors because of those twins commercials.”