One of the most successful magazine covers in history was also one of the most disturbing. The editors of National Lampoon pointed a gun at the head of a terrified dog.
“Buy this magazine or we’ll shoot the dog,” a headline shouted at shoppers in supermarkets, strollers on city streets, commuters on buses and subways back in 1973. According to magazine publishing legend, some people bought it just for the shock value, and then read it in public, cover held over their faces.
They couldn’t do it today, of course. It depicts or suggests graphic animal cruelty and abuse. Just ask Go Daddy; the Internet registration marketer pulled their ad in 2014 before it ever aired because the ad's depiction of mail order puppy shipments in the preview was offensive to viewers.
The fate of the lovable Labrador Retriever puppy in the Budweiser Clydesdales' 2014 and 2015 Super Bowl commercials brings that old cover to mind. Budweiser seems to have a gold mine in the fluffy yellow Lab puppy who frolics between the heavy hooves of the hitch while tugging at America's heartstrings. The brand identification is strong enough to make Don Draper weep.
The Budweiser Clydesdale ads featuring actor Don Jeanes as the farm manager/groom/horse hugger have topped Super Bowl commercial polls for the past three years. “Brotherhood”, about Don’s tearful reunion on a city street with the now-grown Clydesdale foal he raised, was voted the best Super Bowl commercial in history last year.
Budweiser's sweet dog-and-(supersized)-pony show ads in 2014 and 2015 were #1 with fans each year. “Lost Dog” (2015) was a finalist for an Emmy this year.
So, hold onto your longneck Bud bottle: the world’s biggest beermaker announced this week that the puppy is history--virtual roadkill in the almighty marketing plan aiming for better beer sales. In spite of the puppy ads’ immense popularity, Budweiser thinks they didn’t sell enough beer. They don’t promote the product directly, after all. And the product is not wholesome storytelling or adorable puppies.
The product is beer.
Twice in the past ten years, Anheuser-Busch has threatened to leave the Clydesdales out of the Super Bowl in favor of commercials that appeal to a younger, more drinking-oriented demographic. The Clydesdale ads have tremendous appeal to women and older people, and “older” is a bad word in Bud-speak, since the beer’s core customer group is largely comprised of aging Americans who grew up with the brand...and have stuck with it all these years. Translation: loyal customers.
Is dropping the puppy a publicity ploy? Should we play along and flock to protest on social media? Chances are that the commercial is already wrapped, and it’s just a matter of how it is edited or perhaps which Clydesdale ad the brewery decides to air.
The drop-the-puppy bombshell wasn’t the only way that Anheuser-Busch made the news this week. The company recently began a consolidation with Miller to form the world’s largest beer company, and on a smaller, more local level, the Busch family is contemplating selling Grant’s Farm in St Louis, once home to US President Ulysses S. Grant, as well as the Busch family mansion, to the St Louis Zoo.
Each time Budweiser has threatened to ax the Clydesdales in the past, public furor has brought them back. Magically, an ad with the horses appears, after all; if you know about narrative commercials and working for a big client like Budweiser, you know that you can’t film and edit a commercial for them in a weekend, or even in a few weeks. Decisions need to be made months in advance.
Could it be that Budweiser is gambling that the puppy is even more popular than the Clydesdales? Threatening to ax the puppy could unleash a social media storm of gushing fan love on Budweiser's network in the all-important Thanksgiving week sales slot, and leading into the biggest party sweep of all, the Christmas holidays.
Super Bowl 50 is scheduled for Sunday, February 7, 2016 in Santa Clara, California; that is less than three months from now. It’s the 50th Super Bowl, and the 30th anniversary of the first Budweiser Clydesdale Super Bowl commercial, which aired back in 1986.
The comments about ditching the dog were made this week in the ad trade publications as the brewery reveals how many ads it will run, and for which of its many brands. Part of the aura of Super Bowl commercials is dropping hints beginning in November, culminating in a much-heralded early “sneak” release of a trailer or even the entire commercial before the game to social media followers and network news outlets.
"Budweiser aired two very different spots in last February's Super Bowl, and we learned that content focused on the quality of our beer was most effective in generating sales," Anheuser-Busch vice president of marketing Jorn Socquet told Adweek, a weekly trade magazine.
But isn’t that why people like it? The Clydesdales are the symbol of Budweiser. You don't have to be a beer drinker to love the brand. It doesn't get much better than that.
What Socquet might not remember is that Adweek, in an attempt to pump up the excitement over the Super Bowl ads for 2016, ran a poll recently, asking the public whether or not Budweiser should continue with the narrative Clydesdale ads featuring the puppy. Yes! said 75% of respondents.
Traditional wisdom says that if they liked it once, they’ll like it again. But ad experts stress that the idea could get old, and it’s under pressure: the third puppy ad would have to be nothing short of great.
InBev made a good decision three weeks ago, when it made its annual holiday commercial in St Louis, complete with the Clydesdales, who were left out of the 2014 ad. Here's a hint of what you'll see:
One problem Budweiser has is that the hitch ads have always been popular. They’ve never had a bomb with the Clydesdales. But plenty of other companies have seen what it’s like to be ignored in the pre-game ad hype because their commercials didn't register well with early audiences and critics. And then there's the dreaded “worst Super Bowl commercials” list. You won't find Budweiser on it.
Maybe there aren’t enough beer bottles in the Clydesdale ads, but one thing is certain: more people talk about Budweiser during the days before and after the Super Bowl than they talk about any other brand. And during the game, when the ad with the Clydesdales comes on, everyone in the room gives a shout and people come running back from the kitchen. They put down their phones. No one wants to miss it.
Watching the new Budweiser Clydesdale Super Bowl ad during the game is an American tradition, as is comparing the new one to past years. Everyone has a favorite. But watching the new Budweiser Clydesdale Super Bowl commercial each year is an unequalled brand recognition moment that every marketer craves to experience. Is Budweiser taking it for granted?
The ad for Super Bowl 50 can be nothing less than superb. Iconic. Masterful.
But it doesn’t need to be a game-changer. Budweiser defined and wrote the rules for the game of narrative Super Bowl advertising. The puppy doesn’t have to be the star of the show, but to leave him out entirely will make the audience wonder if he’s all right. An animal lovers' backlash is a nightmare Budweiser should consider, given Go Daddy's experience with the puppies in the mail.
By the way, the 2015 “Lost Dog” Super Bowl commercial for the Budweiser Clydesdales has been viewed more than 30 million times on YouTube. But wait, the 2014 “Puppy Love” ad has more than 59 million views! "Brotherhood", the 2013 super-hit that launched the series, is no longer on Budweiser’s YouTube channel, but it was surely in the stratosphere of YouTube views when it was retired.
Here's an alternative for the suits in St Louis:
Make it simple, Budweiser. Give Americans what they want. Let the puppy steal a quick scene and tug on some heartstrings, but go ahead and tell a new story. But don’t threaten to mess with success unless you’re willing to face the consequences of Americans shrugging off your ad, leaving the room when it’s on or--worst of all--forgetting why we’ve loved your ads on all those Super Bowl broadcasts, all these years.
It may well be that the people who do drink Budweiser like being part of a traditional brand that can be counted on do the right thing--which in this case is a creative variation of past success--every year during the Super Bowl.
Make your 30th Budweiser Clydesdale commercial your very best one yet. We want to cheer for you, just as we always have, all these years.