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© 2004 The Beast

TASTES GREAT! LESS KILLING!

The Election, Beer, and the Bitter Taste of Irony

By Matt Taibbi


"[Voters] knew the brand before they knew the man himself."

—Nancy Gibbs, Time magazine, on George Bush's advantage over John Kerry in the upcoming election.

I'VE NEVER BEEN A big irony fan. Irony to meis humor for people with something to hide. To use a metaphor that fits on several levels, irony is like the fart that you squeeze out silently in the middle of French class. You think, but don't say, Excusez-moi! And if you could freeze your face at that moment, you'd have a career as Matthew Broderick's understudy. Incidentally, there's another definition of irony: It's what male dignity looks like on Sex and the City.

Today's America is filthy with irony. Right now, in fact, we are witnessing an historic climactic event, a veritable Krakatoa of irony. I speak of the side-by-side unfolding of the presidential election campaign and the increasingly bitter media war between Anheuser-Busch and Miller.

The election-as-commercial-ad-campaign idea has been an uncomfortable undercurrent in American presidential politics for a while now. As recently as four years ago, it was something that this country still felt it could laugh about, to the degree that people laugh at Jay Leno jokes:

"Now both McCain and Bush are trying to say the other guy is more like Clinton," Leno said in '00, just after the South Carolina primary. "You know what we should do...? Bring in Monica Lewinsky and have a blind taste test, like the Pepsi Challenge."

Yuk, yuk. Fast-forward four years. This time the Democrats are slogging through the primaries, and once again the competing challengers spend 25 hours a day accusing each other of being too much like the president. Only this time it isn't funny. "We can't beat Bush by being Bush Lite!" roared a decidedly unironic Howard Dean early in the process, drawing cheers, not laughs, from crowds—this was one of his key applause lines.

The Dean attack prompted John Kerry, Joe Lieberman and Dick Gephardt to blast back with Bush-Lite denials, which made sense to most people at the time. But it was a very curious debate for grown men to enter into, as candidates for the country's highest office scrambled to publicly define themselves as their own distinct, full-flavored brand of beer.

Then, when Ralph Nader entered the race, he brought the commercial issue to the forefront, saying bluntly: "Bush versus Kerry is like Coke versus Pepsi." The Nader comment was circulated widely in the media, so much so that "the Coke versus Pepsi analogy" became an acceptable and common cliche in political journalism by late February. In the first of many cruel ironies in this story, the Nader comment actually spurred progressives to talk themselves into a position where a vote for "Coke" was morally defensible. "In my view, Kerry vs. Bush is not Coke vs. Pepsi," said Jeff Cohen, founder of the media watchdog FAIR and director of communications for Dennis Kucinich. "It's more like Coke vs. Arsenic."

With much of the country—including the political participants themselves—already voluntarily defining the upcoming race as a battle of competing beers and/or soft drinks, the Miller Beer company came out this spring with a new ad campaign. The company launched its run for the office of "The President of Beers," a transparent parody of presidential electioneering that was supposedly a slap at the monarchist Budweiser, the "King of Beers."

Anyone looking for insight into how political parties choose their candidates might want to examine Miller's choice for its candidate. They probably could have had anybody, but they got journeyman comedian Bob Odenkirk to do the job.

Depending on your social leanings, Odenkirk is either best-known as David Cross' counterpart in Mr. Show, or for his cameo role as the surgeon in the unforgettable Brendan Fraser vehicle Monkeybone. Which should tell you something. The choice, however, makes perfect sense, from Miller's point of view. They could have tried for a Chris Rock or a Dave Chappelle—there's no question Dennis Miller would have done it—but those people might have ideas of their own; furthermore, they might outshine the product. You're not out there to win awards—you're out there to sell beer. So you get a faceless mediocrity who'll do anything for money and act like he likes it. And you trot him out there to make an ass of himself and sell as much beer as he can. Suddenly John Kerry makes a lot of sense.

The ads started to hurt Anheuser-Busch, which had gone away from advertising Bud and Bud Light in favor of heavy investment in the marketing of its Michelob Ultra-Light "lo-carb" beer, which of course in itself is an ironic interpretation of beer. Reeling, Bud fought back. It aired a series of ads starring its famous laconic lizards blasting Miller's candidacy, noting that Miller had recently been bought out by South African Breweries (now called SABMiller). Because Miller is foreign, the lizards noted, Miller is "ineligible" to run for president of beers.

Irony #1: After decades of politicians acting like product lines, you for the first time have a product line acting like a politician. Because A-B's first, reflexive reaction to Miller's attack ads was to impugn Miller's patriotism.

Not that there weren't other avenues for attack against Miller. Anheuser-Busch could have scored major points by noting that after its takeover of the Tumwater Brewery in Washington state last year, SABMiller fired all 400 workers at the plant and gave them an offer of one week's severance pay for every year that Miller owned the plant. Miller bought the plant in 2000, meaning that most of the workers—some of whom had been at the plant under different owners for 35 years—would be laid off with just three weeks' severance.

In that same year that it closed the Tumwater plant, citing financial difficulties, SABMiller saw first-half profits rise 93 percent. Its CEO, Graham Mackay, gave himself a 21 percent raise that year. The company was so hurting that within a year it would throw $550 million into a hostile takeover bid of the Harbin beer brewery in China. SABMiller, in other words, fired American workers in Washington and Milwaukee (200 administrative employees) in order to sink half a billion dollars into a Chinese plant, where workers make, on average, about $84 a month.

How ironic was this? Miller Brewing CEO Norman Adami justified the firing of the 200 Milwaukee employees by saying they, the American employees, were part of the "Socialist Republic of Miller." Then he increased the domestic ad budget 50 percent and went along with SABMiller's bid in the real Socialist China, so that he could employ actual communists at slave wages.

This story would have really hurt Miller if it were out there, but Anheuser-Busch didn't bother. Why? For all the same reasons the political candidates never make meaningful criticisms of each other.

One, it wouldn't have fit into a 30-second commercial. Two, A-B does exactly the same thing. The two companies are actually partners in Harbin, with each retaining about a 30 percent stake after SABMiller's takeover bid failed. And A-B has had layoffs in America amid record profits, increases in executive compensation, and all the rest of it.

They are competitors, the two beers, but competitors with the same moral profile. That's why, when they attack each other, they can only do so by calling each other names. It's perfect: two rapacious corporations, both producers of products that taste like deer piss and exporters of jobs to third-world countries, taking turns calling each other traitors and foreigners. Which firm will win more profits? The suspense is killing me.

Which is pretty much how I feel about the presidential election. Is that ironic? Or is it not a coincidence at all?

 

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