When I was growing up in Bulgaria, commercials were a big deal. In the early 90s, both the economy and entertainment were shedding the shackles of communism. We were no longer confined to only a few TV channels showing content approved by the state and watching state-mandated Soviet news every Friday (as a little kid who did not speak Russian, Friday was a particularly boring TV day for me). As communism fell, so did most of the restrictions on media and entertainment and we started getting access to multiple TV channels and a variety of shows. And, as our economy painfully reshaped itself from a centralized to a market one, commercials entered our lives. Nowadays, commercials are most often nuisances that you want to fast forward through, or pay to avoid altogether. In the early 90s in Bulgaria, they were a real treat, at least to me. They were insights into a brave new world, one where glamorous-looking people consumed goods that seemed utterly mesmerizing and amazing, even if mostly out of reach. If I were a marketer, I’d do anything to have viewers as enthralled by my commercials as the 9-year old Maria was by practically any TV ad.
One 90s commercial that sticks most clearly in my mind was of the Bulgarian beer Kamenitza. Although I don’t even fully remember what was happening in the actual ads, I very clearly remember their tagline: “Men Know Why”. No matter what was happening on screen, the last scene was always one of an ice-cold beer glass or bottle, as the narrator triumphantly declared: “Men Know Why”! I’m guessing whoever came up with this thought it was right on point – men drink beer, and stroking male egos with a knowing nod to their inherent and deep understanding of the very nature of beer would be a perfect way to attract the male consumer. Women, as the part of humankind unable to grasp the significance of a refreshing glass of beer, clearly do not deserve a mention.
The reason I remember this tagline so well is not because I was a beer fan or particularly attuned to gender issues back in the 90s. I recall it because there was some discussion in the media about whether the commercial was sexist, and my parents found that hilarious. In their defense, at this time in Bulgaria the concept of sexism was not well formed in the social consciousness – it was more a wonky Western term thrown around by oversensitive women in wealthier countries, who want to criticize normal daily situations that they find offensive. If used in Bulgaria, it almost always happened as a joke, a way for us to acknowledge how more thick-skinned and cooler we were from people using that ridiculous term. I, myself, was far from being socially conscious in my adolescent years back then, so the reason that commercial really stayed with me is not because I personally found it problematic at the time, but namely because I also found it fascinating that anyone cared enough to even worry about it.
A decade later, already living in the US where I started developing both a taste for beer and an understanding of gender issues, I started becoming more appropriately annoyed by the “Men Know Why” label every time I saw it splayed happily on billboards or on beer garden umbrellas. As I started thinking about sexism in beer commercials recently, I went on Kamenitza’s website. Surely, now that it is 2017 and the company is actually owned by Molson Coors, they would have dropped their ridiculous tagline, I thought. Nope – still there, at the bottom of every bottle. Is it possible I don’t understand why that motto would still exist, since I’m not a man? Maybe the tagline is deeper than I realize, hinting that men know not only why one needs to drink beer, but also why a healthy dose of sexism in advertising is essential?
Not to be outdone by their competitors, in 2001 another famous Bulgarian beer manufacturer – Zagorka (now owned by Heineken) – advertised their beer with the following brainteaser: “What does a person need? A new car, a nice woman, and a good beer!” Don’t you love the juxtaposition of person on the question side, and the goods a person might enjoy on the answer side of that riddle? Fun times! That commercial actually sparked two different lawsuits against the company in Bulgaria – one by private citizens and one by the NGO Consumer Center for Information and Research – both of which were dismissed by the courts.
Bulgaria is far from the only country where marketers have relied on sexism to sell beer over the years. A look through some of the most sexist beer commercials from across the world show that numerous beer advertisers envisioned a very specific arcane image of the ultra-masculine, bread winning, tired-of-women-nagging-him, centerpiece-of-patriarchal-utopia man as their main audience. As a result, women in various beer commercials were not infrequently portrayed merely as objects for the sexual enjoyment of the male audience and the male ad characters alike, or as annoying extras sending their poor male counterparts on a quest for solace at the bottom of the beer bottle.
In one Czech commercial, a man is trying to peacefully enjoy a day on the beach, until the woman next to him starts complaining about something, shattering the serenity of the moment. Thankfully, she turns out to be a talking sex doll, so her embattled partner is able to deflate her and finally find some peace with his refreshing beverage in male-only company (isn’t that the dream)!
In another ad, a female robot has a keg in place of a uterus, through which she can dispense cool pints of Heineken for your enjoyment. A third commercial by the Brazilian company Skol shows you how interesting life could get with beer goggles that allow you to see straight through pesky shower curtains behind which hot women in lingerie are awaiting.
Commercials are not the only channels though which beer producers and marketers are able to get their sexism fix. Beer names and labels are also helpful avenues. The following article has a list of sexist beer labels, and some of them are very charming. There is the Chunky Gal Amber, the Deep Ellum Dallas Blonde with the classy slogan “Goes down easy” and Flying Dog’s Raging Bitch brew. As of the article’s publish date (which was in June 2015), most of the beers on the list were still on the shelves.
Luckily, things have started moving in the right direction. Skol – the same Brazilian company banking on the hypersexualized beer-google imagery – recently decided to transform their own sexist advertising into messages of female empowerment, by saying “the world has evolved, and so has Skol” (not exactly an apology, but better than nothing). The company hired six female artists to transform their obnoxious posters into feminist art statements that, admittedly, look very cool (check out the transformations here).
Earlier this month, the US Brewers Association – an organization of craft brewers from across the country – updated their Marketing and Advertising Code to ban “sexually explicit, lewd, or demeaning brand names, language, text, graphics, photos, video, or other images that reasonable adult consumers would find inappropriate for consumer products offered to the public” and “derogatory or demeaning text or images” from beer marketing materials. The introduction of the document also has a new tone. While the previous amendment to the Code from September 2012 started with a history of beer traditions across the world, the introduction to the April 2017 amendment declares a commitment to “responsible corporate citizenship” and asserts that “(b)eer marketing should be representative of the values, ideals and integrity of a diverse culture.” The Association also said that brands that win an award in the “BA’s competitions, the Great American Beer Festival (GABF) and World Beer Cup…will not be permitted to use GABF and/or World Beer Cup intellectual properties…when promoting the winning beers” and would also not be mentioned on stage when the award is presented (although the brewery itself and the beer style will be announced).
In February this year, All About Beer Magazine also took a stand against racist and sexist beer names and labels, asking the appropriate question “(h)ow, in an age of progress, technology and enlightenment are breweries still releasing and producing beers with demeaning names like Once You Go Black or Panty Dropper?” The editorial statement continued by saying that “(t)he jocular attitude that women are somehow beneath men or simply objects…is something that should have been eradicated a long time ago.” The conservative site Daily Wire was quick to bemoan the initiative as another tragic attempt for political correctness from the left, by publishing a critique with the following distress-laden headline “Leftists Want Craft Beer To Stop Being Sexist. Wait, What?” An article in Heat Street was also critical of All About Beer Magazine’s decision, pointing out that in some instances the message of a beer label might be mistakenly perceived as sexist when it was not intended to be. As an example the author brings up the Panty Peeler beer, whose name was intended to be “consensual-sex positive” and created by a woman. I should note that women can say and do sexist things too, so pointing out the gender of the beer creator is not quite as salvaging as the article’s author seems to think. Also, using a phrase that sounds like it was invented at a frat party might not have been the best pick for a sex-positive message. Either way, the existence of potential grey areas does not negate the need to take a stance against sexist messaging.
So let’s toast to the (hopefully) continued progress away from sexist beer marketing, spurred by a combination of human decency and the prospect of higher profits from consumers averse to sexist messages. In the meantime, I’ll keep enjoying my favorite brews, while steering clear of any companies who thought “Raging Bitch” or “Phat Bottom” labels are a fun, delightful way to sell beverages. And I’ll continue to leave the Kamenitza consumption to its illuminated male followers.