Sunday, June 21, 2009

Beer and Sincerity

I had the pleasure recently--I won't tell you when, in case anybody from work is reading--to watch some old North American Soccer League games on DVD. Most of these games were from the late-'70s; two of the DVDs were ABC Sports season previews for the 1979 and 1980 campaigns, starring the legendary Jim McKay, some extremely simplistic graphics and a fair amount of modified instrumental disco music.

It would be easy and entertaining enough to prattle on for a while about the soccer (sorry, Euro friends) itself...or about the season previews, both of which included long and fairly detailed explanations of exactly what the rules of soccer--which happens to be the world's simplest team sport--are. But what really left an impression on me was--what else?--the commercials. Is it any wonder advertising works so well?

There was all kinds of fun stuff: old ads from WFAA-TV, Dallas-Fort Worth, featuring racing legend Johnny Rutherford squinting into the sun and selling mufflers or something; the old Aamco "double-a, m-c-o" ads for whatever Aamco is or was; Kenny Cooper (the original--the long-time Dallas Tornado goalkeeper) hocking a soccer ball for only $8.95 and six Dr. Pepper bottle caps; the cheesy old "Coke adds life" Coca-Cola spots.

But what really left an impression on me was the beer ads. Pearl's "First in the heart of Texas" campaign had a fairly modern flavor, with the requisite chicks in tight shirts and young people having good times on display. But the other beer ads--for Budweiser and Miller High Life, because there were really not that many other beers for sale in the US back then--were different. They were...surprisingly sincere.

OK, so the Bud ads were somewhat macho, featuring racing cars...well, racing. But there was no humor to Bud's commercials; there were no frat guys carousing or hot girls lathering themselves up. There were no double-entendres, no over-acted high fives, no fist bumps...and no warnings of any kind about drinking and driving or enjoying alcohol responsibly. There was just racing-car footage and then the hard sell.

More striking, though, were the "Miller time" ads offered up by Miller High Life. "Miller time," of course, became something of a catch phrase in the '70s and well beyond, trotted out when a day of hard work was done and it was time to relax and kick back with a not-even-mediocre domestic brew. (But, then again, who knew back then that American beer was lousy? There weren't many imports, and the ones that were available weren't exactly great; and the micro-brew movement was just about two decades away from taking off in any serious way.)

The funny thing about the Miller ads was that they weren't funny. While Bud went for fast cars and no storyline, Miller opted for macho men doing macho things--with no sense of irony or humor whatsoever. One ad featured cowboys riding the range all day and then relaxing in the evening with a cold can of Miller High Life--evidently, the West hadn't entirely been conquered by 1979.

Another ad, the most memorable by some distance, opened with a shot of a guy who was supposed to be some sort of longshoreman, although he frankly looked more like a forgotten '70s pop star (and maybe he was)--not the glamorous kind, but the "singer-songwriter" kind with a fluffy perm and rather wonky looks. Anyway, this (white, for reference) dude was clearly agitated and was yelling at somebody. We quickly came to find out that he was bossing around his (multi-racial--that is to say, there was one black guy) co-workers while loading cargo onto a ship.

The voice-over, like something from a Saturday Night Live skit (now some of that show's early commercial parodies make a lot more sense to me) came on with a manly tone and, without a hint of irony, blasted something along these lines:

"You work on the docks. The work is too hard. The day is too hot. The weight is too heavy. But when you've got that cargo loaded into the belly of that ship and the whistle blows at the end of your shift, it's..." (cue primitive graphic covering most of the screen) "Miller time!"

Cut to a bar scene featuring our pop-star longshoreman and his integrated crew laughing it up at a wonderfully '70s, rather darkly lit, wood-paneled bar. They're horsing around and having a ball when the pop star hears the whistle of the ship he had been loading that day as the mighty vessel heads out to see. In that moment, he feels (we guess) a swell of pride, and a look of accomplishment and satisfaction comes over his face that can only signify his pride in a job well done. The music swells...and scene.

OK, so maybe it's not funny all spelled out like that, but it's hilarious to watch in the context of what beer commercials--and our culture--have become. A few things about this ad in particular stood out to me:

1. It was entirely sincere. The dock workers were real dock workers (or portrayed as such), not too-cool-for-school slackers trying to put one over on the boss or play some sort of trick. They weren't hitting on chicks or screwing around on lunch break; they were breaking their backs. What that tells me is that the target market for beer ads has changed. It used to be the middle-aged, blue-collar, Red Forman-from-That '70s Show kind of guy. Now, it's the frat daddy or 20-something hipster who can't get enough of himself and his impossibly hip buddies.

2. The reason the market has changed is because Red Forman has mostly disappeared from this country. The factory worker, the dock worker, the construction worker--basically the Village People minus the policeman and maybe the cowboy--these guys are still around, but they're a disappearing breed (quickly disappearing these days), and the ones who are left don't have the disposable income that white-collar 20-somethings have. Blue-collar, salt-of-the-earth guys used to rule this country, at least in terms of being the guys advertisers wanted to reach; now, they're jokes, portrayed as rednecks or washed-up old men or neglectful fathers. That's a shame, really. It's unfair, and it's a symptom of the greater problem of hipsterism that plagues this country. But I'm digressing here...

3. It's hard to find any commercial on TV now that's not ironic or silly or that doesn't at least try to be funny. OK, so maybe some of the prescription-drug ads are pretty dry, but even lame household products like the Swiffer get pitched with singing mops and dancing brooms. Sincerity is seriously uncool in our culture right now.

We embrace idiots, malcontents and flippant jokesters as our fictional (and often real-life) heroes. We're addicted to irony and goofiness--and that's not all bad. After all, the bland straight-and-narrowness of old cop shows and '80s sitcoms (think Cosby and Family Ties) did get tiresome pretty quickly and way outlive their entertainment value.

But we seem over the last decade-and-a-half or so to have lost the bravery to really like or believe in something--even a fictional character--in our culture. And when someone genuine does come along (I hate to say it, but I'm going with Susan Boyle here), the backlash against that thing or person from super-cool bloggers and know-it-all social commentators is swift and strong. Even Susan lost the competition that made her a YouTube star worldwide, and while she probably still has a lot of adoring fans, the culture-controlling set seems to have deemed her too real to be accepted into the, ahem, culture club.

Even Susan Boyle only became momentarily popular because we could laugh at her as soon as we looked at her. She was old, fat, pathetic, a virgin--a joke or parody of some sort in our culture, surely the kind of person who didn't really exist in real life. But she quickly became genuine, not only with her voice but also with her lifestyle, her looks and her background. She was real, and she seemed to like herself that way, and we couldn't really handle that.

American Idol and all the other lousy no-talent shows that have taken over the mainstream airwaves have tried to force sincerity, but they're mostly just a lineup of freaks and hipsters trying to out-cool each other with a panel of judges that mostly serves to reinforce unfortunate stereotypes (the business-like white guy, the cool black guy, the emotional woman.) Any sincerity there is forced and staged--and it's easy to tell that it's not real. That's why Susan Boyle was such a shocker and why now, only a few weeks after she made the world look, she's not much more relevant than a '70s beer commercial featuring an earnest dock worker.

There are times when I get really nostalgic for the '70s, even though I was a little kid back then. I miss television that mattered and characters that made us think. Would All in the Family or M*A*S*H even get a pilot produced in 2009? Doubtful. Hey, I love Family Guy and Reno 911 and a lot of funny commercials. But I wouldn't mind seeing that '70s dock worker from the Miller ad come back in the form of a factory worker or waitress or construction worker in 2009--a genuine person, honest, hard-working, somebody trying to hang on and support a family in tough times.

If we overdosed on sincerity in the '80s, surely the pendulum has swung well the other way. We could stand to "keep it real" a little more often in our culture--really real, uncool, modest...sincere. The ship's pulling away, and the dock worker is swelling with pride. I'm not going to laugh at him, personally. I'm going to buy him a beer--and probably something better than a Miller High Life.

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