Hold Your Horses

It’s not politically correct to point this out, but somebody has to say it: Anheuser-Busch’s lineup of Super Bowl spots has become more formulaic and anemic since the brewer’s “merger” two years ago with Belgium’s InBev.

Inevitably, with these kind of takeovers, everyone says nothing will change. Certainly, InBev knows how to advertise brands like Stella Artois. And everyone benefits from a mix of cultures and viewpoints. But while the new owners might speak proper American corporate-ese along with English, German, French and East Flemish (along with lots of Focus-Group-ish and Test-Test-Test-ish), they don’t know Clydesdale-ish — and that betrays a serious tin ear for American culture.

I mean, I’m hardly Lou Dobbs, and I tend not to like sentimental or corny spots. But when I see those gorgeous horses moving in formation, feathered legs flying, pulling the (gulp) beer truck, I can’t help but get a little choked up. You might say it’s sort of sad that as Americans, we are reduced to getting verklempt at the sight of a beer truck, but there you have it: a staggering bit of powerful, historical American brand iconography, almost wasted.

Yes, the original A-B/InBev plan was for a no-Clydesdales Super Bowl! (They later changed their minds and aired a 60-second Clydesdale spot called “Fence.”) No big deal, you say. Let the horses have a rest this year. Well, it is a big deal. Because in place of the Clydesdale spot, the original plan involved showing two really weak :30s.

And now more than ever, when Doritos is kicking everyone’s butt with its consumer-generated spots, A-B can’t afford to do formulaic, warmed-over commercials.

Because what the Doritos spots (and this year, the consumer-generated CareerBuilder ads) turn out to be are Bud Light commercials made on a fraction of the budget. And what that proves is that regular old viewers (some of whom might even want to get into advertising) know the Bud Light formula so well that they can graft it on to anything.

Last year’s Doritos winner took first place on the USA Today Ad Meter by relying on that old Bud Light standard: the getting-hit-in-the-groin joke. This year’s Dorito’s lineup included one spot with two men having a smackdown in a living room, with their wives watching. The first to flinch had to make a Doritos run. Another showed a master whose dog gets violent revenge on him. Etc., etc.

One of the three CareerBuilder finalists up for vote — the one deemed “too hot for TV” — showed a guy in an office cubicle lighting up his own farts, and was nothing more than a cheaper version of a Bud Light spot. The CareerBuilder winner, showing an office full of near-naked people going Casual Fridays one better, is amazingly similar to “Clothing Drive,” Budweiser’s online sequel to the immensely popular “Swear Jar.”

What makes matters worse for the Bud agencies is that these Bud Light jokes are easier to pull off with non-alcoholic products (many fewer restrictions). So, even on no budget, they’ll start outdoing the originals.

But back to the A-B show. When management finally got a clue that people were getting wind of the Clydesdale omission before the game, and were shocked about it, a “new cut” of “Fence” was posted to a Facebook page for fans to vote on. As a result, Bud registered more than 100,000 new Facebook fans, and “Fence” got 70 percent of the vote.

It’s not the greatest Clydesdale commercial every made. Telling the story of a baby bull and baby horse who play together and then meet again, three years later, it seems like a melding of three or four previous spots with similar story lines.

Certainly it can’t touch the original, “Fire Truck,” which showed a competition among baby Dalmatians born in a firehouse, with one taken away to live on a horse farm. But it’s sweet and beautiful to look at, and includes the two laconic farmers/cowboys at the fence, who serve the same purpose that Waldorf and Statler do in the Muppet movies. They reappear here to deliver a characteristically dry assessment of the friendship at the end.

“Fence” saved us from “Payment,” a big cliché, showing how to get paid in beer to help a buddy move or set him up on a double blind date. It ends with the announcer telling us, “So, pay up with the beer that starts with a full flavor and ends with a crisp clean finish. It’s what we do.” Yup, and we are the anti-Dos Equis guys: the most uninteresting men in the world!

We were also spared “Book Club,” for Bud Light, which offers yet another look at the tired Mars/Venus thing, with men who are dumb slobs and their wives, who actually know how to read (and like it!).

That’s why I kind of liked “Asteroid.” It showed the end of world at a scientific station, where both men and women celebrate the apocalypse together. It somehow seemed fitting.

“Light House,” with an eco-artsy design, was an inspired visual concept. Even the furniture and the fridge were made out of beer cans! That could have been endlessly smart! So, why’d they have to dumb it down with the homeowner saying “Enviro-who?” and a shot of his wife in the shower at the end?

“Voicebox” had a memorable sonic device, and it’s cool that T-Pain appeared at the end. But it was also a warmed-over (but much paler) version of “Whassup?”

“Bridge,” for Budweiser, again featured incredible production values. But the whole idea of a disaster and people running to help a beer truck make a delivery seemed a little insensitive in the wake of the tragedy in Haiti.

This year’s Bud Light spots were saddled with a three-line tagline. (That’s like wearing a belt, suspenders and another belt.) Maybe they couldn’t decide, but it gets a bit overdressed: “The sure sign of a good time. The just-right taste of Bud Light. Here we go.”

And there it all goes. Consumers have stolen the formula. What’s left for agencies? How about some new, surprising, innovative ideas? And, of course, keep the pretty horses, too.

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