On budget beer brands' unquenchable online thirst
PBR's rimjob tweets vis-à-vis attention economics and bottom-shelf woes
Nothing happens in a vacuum, and sexually explicit brand posts least of all.
I spent the weekend doing some thinking (perhaps too much thinking) about Pabst Blue Ribbon’s top-of-the-year rimjob-related tweets, and I’ve come to believe that the ass-centric episode can be understood through two separate, related paradigms:
The inevitable, uncanny evolution of Brands Online from bumbling /r/fellowkids fodder to super-savvy in-jokers capable of both participating in and occasionally setting the tone of The Discourse™ as vivid metaphor for capitalism’s powers of cultural commodification.
The increasingly narrow lane budget beer brands occupy in the American drinking zeitgeist, flanked as they are by newer, more exciting beverage options from competitors targeting the same short attention spans of a newly omni-bibulous drinking public.
Start with the basics. By now you’ve likely heard that @pabstblueribbon tweeted about eating ass last Monday, right as everyone was kicking off the first workweek of 2022. This is a real thing that happened, and it seems to have been at least partially planned. As Brewbound’s Justin Kendall reported:
The tweet was part of the company’s “Wet January” campaign aimed at dissuading consumers from taking part in the annual abstinence from consuming alcoholic beverages during the first month of the new year.
How analingus relates to the self-imposed tee-totaling ritual of Dry January isn’t totally clear. We may never know, because by midday Monday someone at Pabst had enough of all the rimjob chatter on main, and the tweets were unceremoniously scrubbed from the account. (Of course, screenshots will live on forever in the NC-17 section of the Bad Brand Tweet Pantheon next to plane vagina, U.S. Airways’ NSFW all-timer.)
PBR blamed the transgression on “poor judgment by one of our associates”—a familiar explanation by now familiar to any social media professional as an exculpatory extension of the “rogue employee/incompetent intern” canard—and promised to “handl[e] the matter internally.” Ominous! In the aftermath, there was some pearl-clutching on Twitter about both the explicit content, and PBR’s implicit mockery of Dry January1 but then everybody moved on to the other horrors the timeline had on offer that day, and that was that.
I should pause here to note that PBR telling its 98,000+ Twitter followers to eat ass in lieu of drinking alcohol is objectively funny. I’m sorry, but it is. The bizarre, unprovoked, from-the-top-rope bluntness of it is funny. The implication—that PBR and ass are interchangeable vices—is funny. The Blue Ribbon standard-bearer of Aughts-era hipsterism tweeting in 2022 about a sex act that was ushered clumsily onto mainstream American TV screens back in 2015 by HBO’s Girls, a show that tap-danced on the Williamsburg grave the brand helped dig? Funny! Even the unnecessary carriage return between the two sentences is offbeat enough to merit a chuckle or two. Pearls remain unclutched here at Fingers HQ; your mileage may vary.
But beyond the undeniable humor of the situation, there are shifting dynamics at play behind (ahem) PBR’s contemporary cock-up that are worth exploring. The subpremium beer category of which PBR is a part (along with competitors like Natural Light, Keystone Light, et al.) has been in decline in the U.S. for years. Even though the bottom shelf has bounced back a bit thanks to pantry-stocking in the early days of the forever-pandemic, its share of overall beer, and beer’s share of overall alcohol consumption, are both shrinking. As I reported for VinePair last year, the college kids that once formed a reliable bulwark for budget beer have begun turning their attention to sleek, low-calorie alternatives like hard seltzer and High Noon, the Barstool Sports-backed, E. & J. Gallo-produced, vodka-based canned cocktail brand of choice on many campuses.2 That demo, like the rest of the market, is premiumizing. That spells trouble for subpremiums.
How can a low-price legacy beer brand effectively market its swill against such stiff, seemingly irreversible headwinds? Not on flavor, innovation, or ingredients; it loses head-to-head against all comers on all counts. Not on provenance or “brand story”—pretty much every classic regional subpremium has been unceremoniously wrangled into a macro’s portfolio (in all likelihood, Pabst’s), and the world’s greatest copywriter couldn’t spin a story strong enough to save these aging warhorses from the glue factory. Further complicating matters, putting a bunch of scantily clad women in front of a camera to shill your beer (the traditional weaponry of lowest-common-denominator beer marketing) is too hackneyed, lecherous, and liability-prone for any mainstream brand to build a campaign around in 2022—even if there was a budget for it.3
Instead, basically every major American subpremium beer has either given up on marketing entirely (save for on-premise wall-hangings and maybe some billboards); or, in the 21st-century style of low-margin CPG brands across the product spectrum, turned to the timeline to tweet through it. Again: nothing happens in a vacuum. The trend of brands relying on voice-y, #relevant, semi-human social media presences—especially, if not exclusively, on Twitter—to differentiate their banal offline products online has been building for almost a decade, and like pretty much everything on the internet, the behavior has metastasized into something far more radical and alienating than how it began.
***It’s 2015 and you’re workshopping jokes about how Junior Bacon Cheeseburgers are “bae.” It’s 2022 and you’re explaining to Pabst’s CMO why doubling down on the ass-play tweets will drive brand affinity amongst core audience, if only they’ll let you keep posting.***
In a 2019 New York Magazine story titled “Brand Twitter Grows Up,” Nathan Allebach (the writer behind the popular Steak-umm account) sketched out the arc that led PBR into the ass-eating abyss: