Of all the classic archetypes that fill American consumer culture, few are as universal as dad grilling in the backyard. Yes, we know: Humans have been cooking over fire for 500,000 years now. But everybody knows that the real story starts after WWII, when the definition of the good life was a suburban ranch house with a Chevrolet in the driveway and a patch of lawn out back.
Now, look carefully through that cloud of blue smoke. There’s our man on the patio, presiding over a slab of sizzling steak, wielding that square-end spatula like a pistol. It’s a durable, believable, adaptable image—which, of course, makes it perfect for advertising. Whether the product is a Swift-brand T-bone in 1960 or a Weber S-470 today, the man at the grill has always served up the branding.
“There’s something so primal about meat, men and fire,” said Jeff Curry, group creative director for the brand strategy firm Sterling-Rice Group. “Even if you take today’s cooking shows into account, grilling is still masculine stuff. If you try to talk to men about cooking, they’ll say, ‘I don’t cook, I grill.’ There’s a line in the sand that’s been drawn.”
That line was actually drawn in 1952 by a Chicago welder named George Stephen, who built buoys for the Coast Guard. Stephen loved to grill for his large brood (he had 12 kids) on an open metal brazier, but he often got rained out. One day at work, Stephen decided to cut a buoy in half and use the lower bowl for charcoal and the upper dome as a lid. Thus was the Weber “kettle” barbecue born.
Before long, millions of Americans were using them. When Swift’s Premium created this ad in 1960, two things had to be in the shot: a Weber grill and a wholesome American guy presiding over it. “They managed to fill this spread with meat and joy,” Curry said. “It’s all there, including the glow of the grill reddening his face. He’s completely uninhibited and loving the moment.”
Much the same holds for the backyard Bob in the 2013 ad for Weber, whose humble kettle has since morphed into this high-tech apparatus. But while the 1960 ad portrayed the grillmaster’s unabashed pride (and the contributive approval of his wife) without a whiff of irony, his contemporary counterpart now stands in a slightly satirical spotlight—chest out, spatula in hand, making the world a better place, one rib eye at a time. “He almost looks like a gladiator,” Curry said. “Clearly they don’t want to cross the line into parody, but we all know we’re getting into silly territory.”
Silly, yes, but familiar territory, too. After all, you can still witness scenes akin to these in many a backyard where men who wouldn’t be caught dead in the kitchen pick up the matches and tongs and maintain an American tradition.