GREAT! LESS KILLING!
Election, Beer, and the Bitter Taste of Irony
"[Voters] knew the brand before they knew the man himself."
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.
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.
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
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. 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
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
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."
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."
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.
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.
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.
#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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
is pretty much how I feel about the presidential election. Is that
ironic? Or is it not a coincidence at all?