Perspective: Surf and Burp

When it comes to selling beer to American men, brands have been heading to the shore for a half century

With a few oddball exceptions, beer marketing has pretty much always been about two things: great taste and having a great time. In furtherance of the latter proposition, beer ads have whisked imbibers to any number of fun locales—ball games, picnics, the corner tavern. But the old standby destination, the one that whispers “chill out and drink up” better than any other, is the water. Saltwater or fresh, the setting always delivers, as these two ads demonstrate. But the passing of 48 years demonstrates something else: The way that marketers show us a great time has shifted—from the presentational to the open-ended.

In 1963, when the ad below made its debut, the 103-year-old Schmidt’s Brewery of Philadelphia was entering a slow decline—though it was still 13th in America in sales and cranking out 640 cans of beer a minute. Postwar competition was tough, however, so the brewer hired the Ted Bates agency to try something new: magazine advertising. Drawing from Schmidt’s research—which showed 80 percent of beer was consumed by men and that “women buy the beer that their men want”—Bates brewed up a tagline: “Full-taste beer.” It then proceeded to show the core consumer (guys) how to take the product (pilsner) and have that aforementioned great time.

“You’ve got the charter boat, the ukulele, the fish, the giggles, and the dames,” observes Glenn Schmitt, who runs MarkeTeam, a hospitality industry consulting firm. The message, he says, “is that this is beer for real, man-sized pleasure. See the two couples in the romantic shot on the lower right? This ad is not just about fishing.”

Nope. Nevertheless, Schmidt’s was furnishing a storyboard that functioned as a kind of how-to manual for leisure. And in the socially insecure, keep-up-with-the-Jones’ era of the Cold War, the instructive approach was the right one. By 2011, when the Corona ad (at bottom) ran, the water still symbolized a good time, but the leisure component had changed. “In the 1960s, consumers obeyed,” Schmitt says. “Now it’s more about personalization. Don’t tell me what I’m supposed to be thinking. Find your beach is what they’re saying. In this decade, you aspire to your own experience. Corona just helps you get there.”

Funny, though: We never left the water far behind.