Today we salute you, "Real Men of Genius." When they said radio ads couldn't make a splash, you didn't listen. While other campaigns fizzled, you kept the laughs going strong—for more than 80 different spots. And now, you're taking your witty parodies to TV. So crack open an ice-cold Bud Light, sit back and enjoy. Because the creatives that have come up with years of mock salutes for the Anheuser-Busch brand truly are "Real Men of Genius."
One of the charms of DDB's 5-year-old radio campaign for Bud Light is how much fun it is to imitate. And the simple formula—a character type that's ripe for mocking and an announcer playing it straight along with an '80s pop balladeer and backup singers—has made seemingly endless variations possible. Now, with three new spots directed by Noam Murro, DDB in Chicago and Anheuser-Busch are taking the rare step of expanding a radio campaign to television in the U.S.
It's a gamble—the radio spots work in large part because the people spoofed are left to the imagination—albeit one based on a campaign that has raked in honors ranging from Lions to Clios to Grandys to British D&AD awards to the $100,000 prize at the Radio Mercury Awards two years in a row. "We didn't want to disappoint with the TV depiction and have people say, 'Gee that's not what I thought the guy looked like,' " says Bob Lachky, vp of brand management for A-B.
Plus, notes group creative director John Immesoete, the TV is risky in its defiance of category convention. "It takes every rule people have written about beer advertising and throws it out: There has to be a cool guy in the ad. It has to show people using the product. It has to say something new about the product," he says. "This is just flat-out entertainment that hits what this crowd likes."
The first spot, "Mr. Way Too Much Cologne Wearer," which broke Nov. 15 on Saturday Night Live, follows a mattress salesman as he liberally reapplies cologne throughout his day: a woman at a gym cringes as he walks by, a taxi driver shuts the window between them, a customer discreetly holds her nose. "Here a splish, there a splash, everywhere a splish splash," the announcer informs us. "You don't stop till every square inch of manhood is covered." A jingle singer accents the commentary with interruptions such as, "Everywhere a splish splash"
The other spots feature "Mr. Grocery Store Cart Wrangler," which premieres on Monday Night Football tonight, and "Mr. Wedding Band Guitar Player," which does not yet have a break date. One of the three is a "virtual certainty" for the Super Bowl, according to Lachky.
A-B commissioned the commercials last year after participants in TV-oriented focus groups kept mentioning the radio campaign. "The moderator had to remind them we were asking them about TV," says Lachky. "Unaided awareness was extremely high."
The campaign had already been on TV in the U.K., where six 60-second spots ran for about 18 months beginning in 2001. (Three of the U.K. ads broke this fall in the U.S.) "[The British] think Americans can be a little bit pompous—they love these because they take the piss out of Americans," says Immesoete.
U.S. creatives who had worked on the radio ads created the spots (DMP DDB in London normally handles the brand in the U.K.). "In the 'theater of mind' you get such a visual picture," says creative director Bob Winter. "It was hard to think of how to do it visually on TV."
Adds creative director Mark Gross: "The trick is, how much do you let lyrics be funny and how much do you let the visuals be funny? The tough thing is finding the right balance."
The resulting U.K. spots, which promoted Budweiser, not Bud Light, feature some goofy images: In "Mr. Really Bad Toupee Wearer," men with odd hairpieces swim and work out; and the viewer gets to see Dave Bickler from the band Survivor, who sings in the radio ads, and backup singers lip-syncing to the track.
The radio series, originally titled "Real American Heroes," followed another popular campaign, featuring Charlton Heston touting Bud Light in a God-like voice. "It was a fantastic piece of radio—offbeat and irreverent," recalls Lachky of the ads, which were on the air for four years. "We were happy we'd carved out an area attached to the brand that was very fun, very young, very cut through."
When Winter, who had been working mainly on McDonald's business, was tapped to help come up with a replacement, he started out trying to spoof the brand's "This Bud's for you" line. He suggested a "rug pull" spot that at first seems to be saluting a football player but is actually focusing on the stadium groundskeeper. When Gross proposed using just the groundskeeper and coming up with some other overlooked jobs, the "Real American Heroes" concept was born. Winter came back with three scripts, starring Mr. Bowling Shoe Giver Outer, Mr. Giant Foam Finger Maker and Mr. Golf Ball Picker Upper.
At first, the team—which also included Bill Cimino, who left in July to become ecd at Foote Cone & Belding in Irvine, Calf.—wanted Bette Midler's "Wind Beneath My Wings" for the soundtrack. But, says Immeseote, "we couldn't afford it, nor did it work very well in the spot when it was done." Then, he says, someone suggested going with "that '80s anthemic thing, like 'Eye of the Tiger.' " DDB was working with Scandal Music in Chicago, whose owner, Sandy Torano, was friendly with Bickler.
"I thought it was a great idea," says Bickler, who recorded his first jingle in the '70s (KFC's "Finger Lickin' Good" campaign), sang "Eye of the Tiger" for a Frosted Flakes ad in the '80s and more recently contributed to Sprite's "The Uncola" campaign. "I've done jingles for a long time, but this is the most fun I've ever had."
The announcer proved harder to find. Immesoete says more than 50 people read the script, but the team didn't hear what it was looking for until Pete Stacker, a veteran announcer on Bud Light spots, auditioned. "He really got the joke—the announcer doesn't know he's being funny," Immesoete says.
The client initially hesitated. "When you look at stuff that is really sarcastic, you think, 'How's this going to come across?' " says Lachky. "But we ran them past the consumer, and they were a home run. Research is always the final arbiter for us."
The stars of the ads, everyone from Mr. Garden Gnome Maker ("Anyone can dress up a yard with a shrub or some gladiolas, but it takes real guts to use a small, brightly colored ceramic man") to Mr. Chinese Food Delivery Guy ("Without you, we'd be forced to do the unthinkable when we wanted Chinese: drive to a restaurant"), quickly attracted fans. Radio DJs such as Howard Stern talked up the spots, people created Web sites that collected the jingles' lyrics, and tapes of them sold on eBay.
The campaign started piling up awards as well. This year, it won a grand Clio, a grand award at the New York festivals, a bronze Andy, two silver pencils at the D&AD awards and a $5,000 general winner Radio Mercury prize, among others.
While Lachky wouldn't speculate about the campaign's effect on sales, Bud Light became the No. 1 beer in the U.S. in terms of sales in 2001—surpassing Budweiser—according to Beer Marketer's Insights, which tracks beer brands. Last year A-B spent about $4 million on radio for Bud Light, a fraction of the $120 million the brewery spent on Bud Light TV ads, according to Nielsen Monitor-Plus.
The campaign went on hiatus after 9/11, when ads mockingly labeled "Real American Heroes" didn't seem funny anymore. After changing the name to "Real Men of Genius," A-B revived the ads in early 2002. With additions such as Mr. All You Can Eat Buffet Inventor ("You've given us the real American dream: a tray, 15 feet of food and a little sign that says, 'Go nuts buddy!' "), the shoutouts extended beyond professions to "people who just need to be called out to take a bow for whatever reason," Immesoete says, and the humor became a little more biting.
Still, the team is careful to avoid getting too outrageous. "We did one on people who wear toupees—but we're saying really bad toupee wearers," explains Immesoete. "I'm sure there are a lot of great toupees out there." One idea that never made it was Mr. Male Nurse. "We felt like we would just piss too many people off," says Gross. (Lachky says the spots receive few complaints, and consumers generally "get the tonality and think it's hilarious.")
Then there are some concepts—Mr. Pepper Mill Guy and Mr. Soft Core Adult Filmmaker among them—that seem funny at first but don't yield enough jokes to make it in the campaign. Much of the humor comes out of improvisation. "When we sit in the studio with Dave [Bickler], a lot of times we redo them all," Immesoete says. "Once somebody went for a Starbucks run. We ended up doing 'Mr. Fancy Coffee Shop Pourer.' Now that one has the potential to go to TV."
The 30-second TV spots, which Lachky says will constitute about 40 percent of Bud Light's broadcast presence in the next six months, condense tracks from the original 60-second radio ads. "We wanted to create characters you can relate to and that are believable—that is the basis for the humor," says Murro, who works out of Biscuit Filmworks in Los Angeles. "[That's] the difference between my work and work done for the U.K., which I thought took the characters and made them into caricatures."
The U.K. ads showed several people who fit the description of the character getting spoofed and had no storyline. "I thought there was an opportunity to use the banality of the characters and build on that rather than exaggerate their lives and stupefy their lives," says Murro, known for his understated humor.
And fortunately for creatives, there's no shortage of banal characters to draw on. "We surprise ourselves by finding more people we haven't done before," says Winter, asked whether the team has trouble getting inspired after 80-plus spots. "Luckily, there's a lot of goofy people out in the world."
Immesoete: 'Real Men's' Leading Man
"Hey, Buddy. Over here. In petites." That line from a 1999 Bud Light spot in which guys secretly watch football inside a clothing-store rack while their wives shop, sums up John Immesoete's wry take on the American male. "He's great at adding a line that really kind of nails the spot," says Bill Cimino, who worked with Immesoete on Anheuser-Busch from the mid-'90s until this summer, when he left to become ecd at Foote Cone & Belding in Irvine, Calif. "He has his finger on the pulse of common man. Maybe it's his Midwest upbringing that lends itself to that common denominator."
Raised in Davenport, Iowa, Immesoete, 38, studied journalism at Iowa State University but, he readily admits, "didn't like to do the legwork." He moved to Chicago, signing up for comedy classes at Second City and landing a job at Leo Burnett, where he stayed for nine years, working for clients including McDonald's, Nintendo and Hallmark. In 1996, Immesoete moved crosstown to DDB because he wanted to have the chance to work on a beer account, he says.
Along with the Bud Light "Real Men of Genius" campaign, Immesoete's Budweiser credits include a 2002 TV commercial showing a woman carefully choosing an anniversary card while her partner picks up his card at a gas station as an afterthought and a spot showcasing a wedding toast gone wrong.
While he's worked on other accounts at DDB, including McDonald's (he was group creative director on "Tough Day," in which a father and son have similarly rough days at work and school), he says A-B is an ideal client because "it's very open to doing new things. They really love advertising and really want to do something people will talk about and notice."
DDB's U.S. chief creative officer, Bob Scarpelli, who hired Immesoete, describes him as "one of the best dialogue writers I've ever met," and says he's earned A-B's trust through "good ideas and fresh thinking."
Cimino adds that Immesoete and A-B are a good match because of their similarly high standards. "[Immesoete] will kill a thousand ideas before he hits the one he likes," Cimino says. Likewise, "[A-B] is looking to swing for the fences, and playing on that level is not easy for everybody."