Anheuser-Busch, one of the largest American advertisers and the one perhaps most under fire recently for provocative pitches in mainstream entertainment like the Super Bowl, is rethinking the tone and content of its advertising campaigns for beer brands like Bud Light and Budweiser.
August A. Busch IV, president of the Anheuser-Busch Inc. division of the Anheuser-Busch Companies in St. Louis, disclosed the reappraisal yesterday in a question-and-answer session after his speech here in the opening general session of the 2004 management conference of the American Association of Advertising Agencies. Mr. Busch attributed the reassessment to the intense backlash against risqué content generated by the Janet Jackson performance that went awry during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show on Feb. 1.
The storm of protest that followed has prompted a great deal of soul-searching by companies and their agencies about how far is too far in infusing their ads with crowd-pleasing elements of humor and music.
"As we came out of the Super Bowl, the mood of the country seemed to have changed, and some of our ads got wrapped into that same controversy," Mr. Busch told the audience of about 330 people at the Ritz-Carlton South Beach hotel.
As a result, "we are taking a more cautious approach to our creative," he added, seeking to "not be distasteful in our content moving forward."
Until now, almost all the changes in reaction to Ms. Jackson's wardrobe "malfunction," as it was described by her partner in disrobement, Justin Timberlake, have come in the realm of programming, not advertising. Television networks introduced five-second delays in live broadcasts of awards shows, for example, and the Federal Communications Commission levied higher fines against radio broadcasters who carried Howard Stern and other so-called shock jocks.
Among the few advertisers that have been rethinking campaign content is an Anheuser-Busch competitor, the Coors Brewing division of the Adolph Coors Company, which is toning down the sexiness of commercials featuring twin sisters who promote its Coors Light beer brand.
The rethinking at Anheuser-Busch is already affecting the development of commercials for the 2005 Super Bowl, Mr. Busch said in an interview after his speech. The company typically starts planning for the next Super Bowl as soon as a week after the previous one.
The company and its agencies are "prepared to do better research" into consumer attitudes, Mr. Busch said, because "there's something going on we need to understand."
One commercial that Anheuser-Busch ran during Super Bowl XXXVIII, a Bud Light spot about a flatulent horse, has been withdrawn from the company's rotation of commercials, Mr. Busch said. The spot had been appearing during late-night shows since early February.
The horse commercial was among several for Bud Light that critics complained were evidence of a corporate philosophy by Anheuser-Busch to reach for the lowest common denominator in commercials aimed at the most frequent beer drinkers - men from 21 to 25 years old - resulting in a race to the bottom to fill commercials with bathroom humor, double entendres, crude sight gags and vulgarisms.
Other Super Bowl spots the critics condemned featured a crotch-biting dog, a male monkey wooing a human female and the comedian Cedric the Entertainer mistakenly undergoing a bikini-wax treatment at a spa.
"Has the Super Bowl become the toilet bowl?" asked one conference participant, Cheryl Berman, chairwoman and chief creative officer at Leo Burnett Worldwide in Chicago, part of the Publicis Groupe.
After watching the commercials on Super Sunday this year , she added, "you wanted to take a shower."
"It's not hard to do a raunchy commercial that gets a one-shot belly laugh," Ms. Berman said. "It's harder to do one with a great idea" that is "more emotionally connective" to consumers.
Many of the Bud Light Super Bowl commercials were created by offices of DDB Worldwide, part of the Omnicom Group, led by the Chicago office.
"We try to do advertising people like to see," said Bob Scarpelli, chairman at DDB Chicago and United States chief creative officer for DDB Worldwide. Mr. Scarpelli, who was in the audience for Mr. Busch's remarks, said that all the tests of the Super Bowl XXXVIII spots before the game showed that "people loved them: younger drinkers, older drinkers, male, female."
"But in the context of the halftime show, it all got crazy," he added, so now "we need to be listening to the changing mood" of the public.
Bud Light "is about fun, being with friends, good times," Mr. Scarpelli said, "and we can do that within the boundaries of good taste."
He added, referring to the tenor of the most recent commercials, "Maybe it was a little risqué."
Other conference attendees who listened to Mr. Busch's remarks said they were struck by their relevance to the age-old question of whether advertising should reflect consumer mood, be far ahead of it or seek to lead, but just a little.
"You can still be creative and be careful about sophomoric humor," said Steven Blamer, president and chief executive for the North American operations of Grey Worldwide in New York, part of the Grey Global Group.
"You have to be sensitive to the mood," he added, "and I think the mood has changed significantly."
Kevin Roberts, worldwide chief executive at Saatchi & Saatchi in New York, also part of Publicis, offered another perspective, declaring that agencies "are not here to mirror culture; we're here to inspire."
While the Anheuser-Busch reassessment "is a good thing, because it will probably get us to a better place," Mr. Roberts said, "we must not respond to every reaction" by consumers that is not adulatory. "It should be a proactive, creative-driven approach, rather than a defensive reaction to an isolated accident."
To demonstrate, Mr. Roberts, in a speech he made after Mr. Busch's, showed a commercial his agency created in Australia that featured a mass murderer named Mark Read, known as Chopper - for a campaign to stop drunken driving.
During the Super Bowl, Anheuser-Busch "crossed a line that had already been crossed over by other advertisers," said Ron Berger, chief executive and chief creative officer at Euro RSCG MVBMS Partners in New York, part of the Euro RSCG Worldwide division of Havas.
"Janet Jackson actually helped out" the company and its agencies, he added, "by deflecting scrutiny of their work," which was ignored in the days after the halftime brouhaha.
Mr. Berger, who was elected last month as chairman of the agency association, said that as Madison Avenue ponders how far is too far, "at the end of the day the determination ought to be this: are you willing to put your family name, your brand name, on the ad?
"And in this case," he added, referring to Anheuser-Busch, which sells beer under the Busch label, "the family name is the brand name." The conference, the 86th annual meeting of the agency association, known as the Four A's, concludes today.
Stuart Elliott, The New York Times. April 16, 2004
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