HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO

By Pete Brown

Moving from playground to boardroom to Instagram, Pete Brown charts beer’s journey from hero to zero and back again

1980s

“Did you see it? Did you see it?”

“Stop! Stop! We’re going round in circles!”

We all remember what it was like. You’re 12, and one of the most important veins of playground banter is repeating the latest sketch from your comedy idols. If you weren’t allowed to watch last night’s episode, you are no one. If you can remember more of the lines and catchphrases than anyone else, and get the funny voices right, you’re a classroom god.

Depending on your age, for you, it might have been Monty Python, The Young Ones, The Fast Show or Little Britain.

For me, it was adverts.

In the space between Python and the 1980s alternative comedy boom going mainstream, ads on TV seemed funnier than the programmes. Terry and June may have been critically rehabilitated now, but it was hell to live through the time when it set the standard for sitcoms.

Salvation came in commercial breaks. In the 1980s, it was considered rude to try to sell you something directly, so a good ad would make you laugh, move you or dazzle you, and then politely remind you of the product’s name at the end.

Beer ads bossed the box. Christopher Biggins was a Roman emperor sinking pints of lager; a young Jonathan Ross drank Harp to ‘stay sharp’; and back in ancient Rome, the slaves rowing on one side of a galley were refreshed by Heineken, while those on the other were given ‘another leading lager’, and our school playground had its latest catchphrase.

1990s

“Can we hero the product?”

Around the boardroom table, eyes roll.

Beer ads have had their teeth pulled. The Hofmeister bear has been shot with the fatal dart of regulation. His alleged crime? Being so popular that he made children want to drink beer. He didn’t make me want to drink beer; he made me want to do something far worse.

He made me want to work in advertising.

Fifteen years after chanting Heineken slogans in the playground, I’m in the boardroom of their ad agency. It’s my job to look after the strategic direction of the Heineken and Stella Artois ad campaigns.  

Advertising has a way of mangling the English language. It doesn’t have to invent new words when it’s happy torturing old ones. We often have conversations about who or what the ‘hero’ is in the ad we’re working on. Is it the housewife trying Daz instead of her normal powder? The frog in the Budweiser ad croaking out the brand name? Or could it actually be the product itself?

Inevitably, ‘hero’ becomes a verb as well as a noun. ‘To hero’ the product is to put it centre stage and forget the distractions. Unfortunately, each time we try this with beer, it stands there mute and awkward. No one knows or cares what ‘cold filtered’ means or what ‘dry beer’ is.

Just as I get my chance to work on them, beer ads start getting boring.

2000s

“What’s the point in advertising anyway?”

In the 1980s, there were two commercial channels. Now there are hundreds. Even if you could somehow make a great beer ad, the mass audience that would see it has now shattered into a million fragments.

Instead of wasting money on anodyne ads that no one will see, the great beasts of the beer world now spend their budgets on supermarket price deals.

Where beer was once chosen based on its image, it’s now chosen on price. Instead of being loyal to one brand, there’s a range of ‘acceptable’ brands, and people choose whichever is on the best deal.

2010s

“New England IPA is a product of Instagram culture.”

The words of Garrett Oliver flash across the global beer community thanks to sensationalist reporting of a chat about 2017’s most controversial beer style. Beer writers, bloggers and Instagrammers line up on both sides of a debate about the style’s validity. It’s the biggest argument over beer styles since the spat over whether ‘black IPA’ is a valid style.

Having left advertising and now written on beer for 15 years, I realise that heated conversations about beer styles have been a common theme across all my feeds since 2010. My last book was about beer’s ingredients. Every day on social media, I see professional writers and amateur drinkers alike trying to encapsulate the flavour of the beer they’re drinking.    

Finally, the beer itself has become the hero. The big, commoditised brands that once had heroic advertising still dominate market share, but they look enviously at craft beer, at the buzz of excitement around it. They remember what it was like, and make half-hearted attempts to steal the language of craft, to reflect in its glory. Beer is now bought and drunk on its own merits, rather than because of its manufactured image.

Or is it?

I’ve heard people recently saying that sour beers are ‘over’, despite the fact that there are more excellent examples available than ever. Beers that were once hailed as the world’s best on rating sites have sunk without trace, despite the fact that they haven’t changed. And then there’s the question of New England IPA…

Beer helps us express ourselves and mould our identities. It doesn’t need dancing bears and croaking frogs to do that.

The image of beer is as important as ever, even if it is now based on what’s in the bottle as much as what’s on the label.


First published in Issue 16 of Original Gravity