Is this a first? In “Great Wide Open,” a Budweiser-backed docu-series directed by Jared Leto, there are more sightings of Red Bull’s logo than there are of Budweiser’s. I counted. The final score: Red Bull 4, Budweiser 0.
Everyone’s favorite purveyor of liquid pick-me-up for x-trEEEm sports enthusiasts and parents of young children makes a cameo in each of the four episodes that have gone live so far, courtesy of an appearance on a climber’s headband during the opening credits. It’s a blink-and-miss-it situation, but still: In a series upon which Budweiser likely spent the equivalent of Botswana’s GNP, the only brand signage belongs to a beverage other than Budweiser. Hi, my name is Attention To Detail. Have we met?
Inadvertent or no, the invasion of a foreign brand - especially one with years of hard-won credibility among the outdoorsy types to whom Budweiser is hoping to appeal - suggests that the folks behind “Great Wide Open” are new to this brand-content thing. While I applaud the common sense underlining the decision not to plaster Budweiser logos all over a series set in Yosemite National Park (and featuring elite mountain climbers engaged in pursuits that are incompatible with the consumption of alcohol), the very existence of the series means that Budweiser very much wants to present itself as a friend to Johnny Rough-n-Tumble, to anyone who fantasizes about giving away all his/her possessions and communing with nature.
This is delusional, frankly. Budweiser hasn’t even pretended to care about such individuals before; its historical focus has been on sports-watching-type people and their couch-aficionado brethren. You can’t just decide on a whim that your brand has true appeal to an audience you’ve thoroughly ignored for eons in favor of that audience’s almost precise opposite.
No matter how well or poorly executed any brand content is, ultimately its success comes down to a single question: Do you buy the sponsoring brand’s involvement? In this instance, the answer is a derisive snort. Maybe Sam Adams or some other mammoth brewer that has attempted to position itself as oh-so-authentic and artisanal could get away with this. Budweiser cannot.
It feels almost extraneous to discuss the episodes themselves, but since I watched the darn things… Perhaps it’s a slight problem that nearly everything about “Great Wide Open” has been done before. Hell, the series unwittingly acknowledges this, featuring clips of its protagonists on 60 Minutes and Today. It also includes the most unfortunately prescient piece of dialogue in any brand video ever made: “No matter how well you guys film, you’re not going to capture how ridiculous this is.” Yup.
The only unique aspect of “Great Wide Open” is the eager participation of auteur/would-be climber Leto, who’s as game as game can be… and yet still manages to come across as a chirpy kid brother. It’s rare that an A-list entertainer invests as much of himself in a project of this nature as Leto does. He climbs! He interviews! He wears an activity-appropriate hat!
But Leto ain’t exactly Everyman, you know? It’s not the smartest choice, then, to place him front and center; the series does not lack for Leto footage, is one way to put it. His enthusiastic exhortations (the third episode’s “Just to see all of this without roads or cities or towns, I mean, fuck! Some smart motherfuckers who fought to keep this…” is the series’ idea of an articulate conveyance of awe) have the effect of reducing him to a tourist, a tag-along dilettante.
The climbers, among them legends like Alex Honnold (“The Rockstar”) and Renan Ozturk (“The Dirtbag”), necessarily take a back seat to Mr. Celebrity From Hollywoodtown. This is a shame, as their musings on nature and mortality are, by a wide margin, the most compelling aspect of “Great Wide Open.” Whether such musings belong in a brand video, of course, is an entirely different question. But a scaled-way-back version of this series that plays up their thoughtful monologues and dispenses with the bros-on-an-excellent-adventure chumminess is something I’d watch.