As lapsed adolescents with light wallets and what I now realize were borderline drinking problems, my elite college coterie and I couldn't swim in the deep end of the branded-beer pool. Hell, we couldn't even wade into the shallow end, as the cost of a 12-pack of "cold aged" Genny Light cans was prohibitive. While we'd splurge on $1 Schaefers at the local gastropub for special occasions -- say, the clock-tower chime of noon on Wednesday -- our purchases were mostly confined to whatever unbranded beer was on sale at the gas station. No fewer than four of us have had parts of our small intestines surgically removed; we were, and are, idiots.
Thus I've always been skeptical about campaigns that seek to position low-market beer as something other than low-market beer. Most of the big brewers have shied away from this tactic, instead basing their pitches around drinkability ("liquid substances are easier to swallow than solids or gases") and coldness ("if your hands and skin have lost all sensation, or if you were born with a tongue that doesn't register temperature, our specially designed can will signal you when your beer is adequately chilled"). Pabst alone has gone the so-bad-it's-good-unless-you're-anemic-or-allergic-to-pyruvic-acid route, pushing its potables on the trucker-hat crowd.
So it's no surprise that the beermaker responded to one of the more unusual celebrity requests in a while: Will Ferrell's offer to create a handful of videos for Pabst's Old Milwaukee brand, free of charge. The ads, which found their way to YouTube late last month, can be neatly encapsulated as "Will Ferrell being Will Ferrell-like." He shifts easily into unwitting-doofus mode, parodying celebrity endorsers and bone-dumb beer marketing in the same breath. They're funny as hell.
But as schoolmarm-ish as it makes me sound, I question the wisdom of a major-league marketer handing over the branding keys to an outsider who's only in it for a cheap goof. Since graduating from sediment-laden beers, I haven't paid a lot of attention to Old Milwaukee's marketing over the last few years. Nonetheless, I'm guessing that the Ferrell videos aren't consistent, tonally or otherwise, with the existing brand positioning (which, upon a cursory glance at the OM web site, appears to be "Old Milwaukee is a beer that more or less tastes like beer should"). Perhaps Pabst realizes this: It's telling that, as of late Thursday morning, the Ferrell ads don’t appear to be featured on Old Milwaukee's Facebook page.
Listen, just about any brand would do back flips for an A-list celebrity like Ferrell to fall into its lap, especially at the cost of zero dollars and zero cents. Old Milwaukee's marketers would've been even bigger idiots to turn him away. They come out ahead here no matter what happens.
It's still hard to see how the Ferrell "campaign" advances the brand. Old Milwaukee earns some viral-video cred and will probably sell a few extra t-shirts in the days ahead. But after viewers have giggled their way through the three clips, their overall impact will fade fast.