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Looking back at PBR's tongue-in-cheeks New Year, 12 months later
Editor’s note: Happy 2023 from Fingers HQ! I’m setting up house/home office here in Virginia, brainstorming a refresh for The Fingers Podcast, and planning some bigger editorial initiatives for the coming year that I’ll be ready to share soon. In the meantime, I’m unlocking a popular Fingers edition about Pabst Blue Ribbon’s instantly iconic ass-eating tweet, which the brand sent 12 months ago today—January 3rd, 2022—to kick off last year’s Dry January.
Unfortunately, the guy who sent this tweet got fired for it shortly after, which sucks. But I think the analysis below (originally published 1/10/22) holds up, especially as we see increased competition for attention and *shudder* share of throat from incumbent beverage-alcohol players, Big Soda interlopers, and freewheeling independents, too. Hope you agree.—Dave.
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.***
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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:
In response to lagging behind the curve for so long, more and more brands hired internet-savvy people and comedians to improve their marketing, which swung the pendulum toward cultural relevance and relatability. The entire landscape was changing, and by 2018, this humanization became the norm.
He identifies quick-serve restaurant heavyweights Denny’s, Arby’s and Wendy’s as pioneering practitioners of this brand-as-poster approach to marketing, with CPGs like Steak-umm, Hamburger Helper, SunnyD, and Coco Vita deploying it to powerful, if bizarre, effect over the back half of last decade. “Advertising is designed to misinform and blend in with culture,” wrote Allebach. “So stay sharp, and remember this: The arc of Brand Twitter is absurd, and it bends toward sales.”
In an attention economy where market participants (you, me, anyone else who sits in front of a computer for 8+ hours a day) are both overwhelmed and deeply cynical, the brands that follow that arc must constantly renegotiate the straining relationship between a sophisticated, tapped-in online presence striving to be more than it is, and an offline offering that must always be exactly what customers expect. After a half-dozen years of Brand Twitter, backlashes to Brand Twitter, and backlashes to the backlash, a broad awareness for subcultures and deep understanding of them to manage that negotiation while also writing ever-more aggressive tweets to cut through the mounting din.
Coopting and commodifying something as fluid and fragmented as internet culture is not easy, but done successfully, it pays off in valuable earned media hits, merch sales to loyal fans, and even IRL retail revenue boosts. Aside from the aforementioned brand, there are beer-specific success stories worth noting. Four Loko in particular has done a great job of parlaying its black-sheep image offline—earned via horrible headlines and regulatory pressures—into a freewheeling social media powerhouse. (For example, the FMB brand used its niche Twitter account to distribute branded STD kits this past June, an upsettingly obvious and therefore brilliant marketing stunt.)
But it’s a double-edged sword: the road to #epic Brand Twitter is paved with cringe and catastrophe,4 bricks laid by inauspicious, overeager, or hamfisted attempts to harness the power of the attention economy. Make no mistake: I’m not arguing that Pabst Blue Ribbon’s risqué tweets will kill the brand, or even hurt its sales. (It’s simply hard to imagine the Blue Ribbon loyalist who would switch to another beer over a little butt stuff.) Still, I don’t think the brand’s salad-tossing schtick was successful on merit, either. For one thing, it felt stale: Gawker was still alive and proclaiming “The Booty-Eating Renaissance” back in 2014, for chrissakes. For another, Pabst committed the cardinal posting sin of doubling-down before deleting the tweets entirely. You hate to see it, but you should also expect it to keep happening, and not just with subpremium beer brands.
As both the beverage marketplace and the attention economy get more competitive, more beer/wine/spirits brands (which are typically behind the CPG curve by a few years owing to more conservative/legally sensitive stances on marketing) are going to get online, start line-stepping, and realize just how tricky it is. But they may not have any other choice. After a decade-plus of artisanal/craft/local themes dominating the American marketing vernacular, the pendulum is swinging back towards commodity goods with fewer ties to space and place. Brands in that mix will be desperate for ways to differentiate their uncanny canned goods to drinkers making more decisions (and more purchases) online.
Which, of course, is how we wound up with PBR-as-poster in the first place—and how @pabstblueribbon wound up eating shit.
This critique, like the entire conversation surrounding Dry January at this point, seems mostly stale and performative to me. But I’ll wait to open that can of non-alcoholic worms (?) in another newsletter!
Liquor is coming on strong everywhere, in fact: “In 2020, distillers reported their best sales in four decades—including ready-to-drink cocktails—while beer sales dropped,” reported Saabira Chaudhuri for the Wall Street Journal in a big beer vs. booze takeout last week, and “[s]pirits makers have mounted an organized lobbying and marketing campaign to further their gains.”
That doesn’t mean independent fringe players won’t deploy this time-tested tactic. They most certainly will!
I’m reminded of this instant-classic Gawker Blog titled “Ragú Has the Saddest Twitter Marketing Campaign of All Time, Goodnight” but obviously, there are a lot of less amusing/more horrifying examples.