Amber Waves of Grain

Like anyone who has ever watched TV sports, I know the Clydesdales are the symbol for Anheuser-Busch's flagship beer brand, Budweiser.

Who says you don't learn anything from watching television? August A. Busch III tells viewers that his father gave a hitch of Clydesdales to his grand-father to celebrate the end of Prohibition. The team of horses was then "taken down Pennsylvania Avenue" to the White House, where the first case of post-Prohibition Bud was delivered to President Roosevelt.

If only TV had been there to turn this filial devotion cum Mad King of Bavaria publicity stunt into a brand icon. Today, the Clydesdales are to horses what the Marlboro Man is to cowboys. Oops, bad analogy.

The Marlboro Man, soon to be banished as an emblem of a sin product, is the spectre that has inspired the low-profile chairman of Anheuser-Busch to talk about learning quality brewing at his father's knee.

With TV beer ads under fire, the behemoth brewer is fighting the neo-Prohibitionists' sanctimony with even more sanctimoniousness. The company is painting Bud as a symbol of tradition, history and everything wholesome.

As the fresh-faced head of marketing, Augie IV gets his turn to speak for the family in the campaign, insisting, "Beer is like a food." As opposed to being like, say, a belt of scotch.

Augie IV also tells us Bud is "about people, about family." And in the spot about Prohibition, where we learn the aforementioned story of the Clydesdales, we are told it's about this great country of ours, too. Complete with archival footage, the ad is like a miniepisode of Biography.

"Prohibition was an extremely difficult period for the Busch family," Augie III admits. (Now there's a reason not to ban beer ads: to protect the welfare of the Buschs.) Cut to beer bottles being emptied into a trough. Cut to the neon sign over the brewery being switched on at Prohibition's repeal. Cut to FDR addressing the nation. We don't make beer, the ad implies. We make American history. I don't know whether I should drink a Bud or salute it.

A consumer can react like a knee-jerk cynic to such hoary themes, but a critic should not. A-B is well-positioned to play the great family-tradition card. It's that rare corporate entity in 1990s America: an 800-pound corporate gorilla that is also a family business, so venerable that its successive generations are numbered in Roman numerals, like the Super Bowl.

A-B has strong hometown ties to St. Louis, my hometown. I can testify that the Buschs reign there as faux royalty, not so much living in society as above it, a little Bavarian kingdom of their own.

When the St. Louis Cardinals, owned by A-B until 1995, opened the season at home, the pregame festivities would feature August Jr., known locally as Gussie, and the Clydesdales taking a tour of the ball field, while the "This Bud's for You" oompah jingle blared. The fans would scream with delight. It was like a marketer's wet dream. Clearly, this hometown family stuff is not all hokum.

Yet I wonder if there's a bit too much of the Buschs in the current ads. After all, they're no longer playing to a hometown crowd. As a company spokesman, Augie III is not Wendy's Dave Thomas.

Perched on a bar stool in carefully pressed, casual Friday duds, he is forceful and earnest, but a little chilly. And when the camera isn't focused on III and IV extolling family traditions, it is lovingly panning portraits of II, I and great-grandpapa Adolphus. On the soundtrack, a synthesizer pumps out an organlike hymn.

Hey guys, lighten up.

It's only beer.