No Bottoms Up: Light Beer Sales Are Sagging

(Tasty news for many faithful Professor Good Ales readers!- Prof. GA)

Written by Eric Felten for online,

Light beer is in a slump. Advertising Age reported this week that U.S. sales of the biggest brands are in an alarming slide, with Bud Light down 5.3% this year and Miller Lite off 7.5%. Is this but a recessionary blip or are we finally witnessing a great consumer revolt against shamefully bad beer, shamelessly promoted?

There are many possible explanations for the decline in light-beer sales. Advertising Age speculates that the dawdling of the economy has left 21-to-35-year-old men with pockets too empty to afford “premium” (which is to say, heavily advertised) beers. Old Milwaukee Light, here we come.

Or could it be the fault of the insultingly stupid ads themselves (campaigns on which the industry spends hundreds of millions). Miller Lite has been relying on skits yukking it up about how guys can’t commit to relationships with women, but sure do love their beer. Bud Light has used the genius tag-line “drinkablility.” No doubt high praise for a beverage.

The marketers don’t really know what the problem is. Maybe it’s just that the marginal caloric savings promised by these diet beers no longer seems worth putting up with lousy beer. After all, the elastic-undergarment maker Spanx is doing brisk business selling “compression undershirts” for men. Why should guys worry about calories and carbs when they can just wear girdles?

[feltenbeer] Associated Press

Am I being unfair to light beer? Until this week, my experience with these ubiquitous products was nearly nonexistent. Maybe I had a Bud Light or Miller Lite once or twice over the last decade at some barbecue where it was the only refreshment in the cooler. But I have to admit I never gave these brews a chance.

I would hate to think my disdain reflected mere prejudice, a snobby refusal to be seen with the everyman quaff. But prejudice it is, in that I judged these beers to be inferior without giving them a proper tasting. And if there’s one thing I learned in my tenure as the Journal’s drinks columnist, it is that you can’t be swayed by your expectations of a product’s quality. There is no substitute for empiricism..

So, at my local supermarket Wednesday evening, I grabbed up every domestic light beer I could find. They didn’t have every brand, but the big boys were well represented.

P.T. Barnum would have admired the bunkum that goes into the packaging. Miller Lite is now presented in “vortex bottles.” That is, the glass on the inside of the neck is rifled and this, they promise, improves the flavor of the beer. Coors Light brags of its “cold activated” bottles and cans: The mountains on the labels turn blue when the product has been chilled.

Who knew that Americans needed temperature-sensitive packaging to tell them when a beer is cold enough to drink? (It’s always a bad sign when a company seems to think that its customers are morons.)

Taking notes in my blind tasting I quickly found myself running out of ways to describe vapid nothingness. Natural Light was “flavorless”; Michelob Ultra was simply “bland”; Coors Light was “blah”—though it did have the slightest hint of sweetness, as if an ounce of (bad) ginger ale had been diluted with pint of club soda. Miller Lite had a slightly foamier consistency (the Vortex bottle at work?) but no particular taste that could be discerned through the suds; Bud Light earned the honorific “least awful, but just barely.”

No wonder these beers are so heavily advertised. No one would think to drink them otherwise. And even if there are those who actually like the stuff, the different brews are virtually indistinguishable. Nothing begs for vigorous marketing like products that are otherwise undifferentiated.

All of which suggests that the great purveyors of industrial beer are likely to double down on the ad buys. For more than 30 years, they’ve pushed insipid suds with cartoonish spots celebrating the stupidity of men. Why change now?

I’d like to imagine that the reason sales of these brews are in decline is that drinkers are finally fed up with just how bad they are. If that’s the case, no number of advertisements with amiable doofuses proclaiming their love of light beer is going to stop the slide.

But there is a radical solution open to the beer giants: the Domino’s strategy. That company took a risky—some thought foolhardy—leap this year with ads admitting that the pizza they had been selling was terrible. They apologized for it, promised their new pies would be better, and asked long-suffering customers to give them another chance. Domino’s U.S. same-store sales were up 14.3% for the first quarter.

Imagine if Anheuser-Busch (now conglomerated with the Belgian beer multinational InBev), or MillerCoors (the other player in the great American beer duopoly) were to announce they regretted making bad light lagers and that, from now on, they would do better. Imagine if the beers actually reflected that commitment.

Instead, we’re more likely to see them flood the zone with more ads like those for Miller Lite, which ask us to laugh at a parade of losers for whom bland beer is more engaging than gorgeous women. I plan to turn off the TV and enjoy a Tom Collins with my lovely wife.

Eric Felten is the author of “How’s Your Drink: Cocktails, Culture and the Art of Drinking Well.”

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