December 15th, 2016
This Bud’s For You
I suppose it’s part and parcel of our escalating Weimar Republic flashback to simultaneously watch the school for scoundrels roll back the cultural clock while some people spin it forward. Exhibit No. 1: the entire Left Coast, all 1300 miles of it, which has now legalized marijuana. I’ll leave it to the Magic 8-Ball to determine what position the incoming federal administration takes on this, but while we’re waiting, we have an interesting bit of data to unpack.
It seems that in every state which has legalized marijuana, beer consumption has dropped. Not, however, just any beer. Craft beers are doing fine. But the characterless alcohol delivery systems which were American beer until the 1980s — Coors, Budweiser, Miller and their kin — are taking the hit, dropping by 4.4% last year. This data, it turns out, aligns with other data showing increases in marijuana use. But what’s most telling is that the shift seems focused within low-income households. The conclusion isn’t exactly hiding: given a choice of cheap grass or cheap beer, grass wins.
The history of human self-medication with psychoactive substances may well be the history of humanity; the most ancient known recipe is for beer and our oldest epic, Gilgamesh, pivots on the transformation of wildman Enkidu into a human via the alchemy of ethanol. What is it that makes drunkenness (in whatever form) so intrinsic to humanity? I’d venture to guess that if you asked the author of Gilgamesh — and maybe Hemingway and Fitzgerald and several thousand others writers — they’d tell you the difference between humans and animals is that humans have found ways to dull the ache caused by life’s imperfections.
That, of course, is old school thinking; we now know that elephants and chimps get blitzed on fermented fruit, and porpoises pass around toxic pufferfish like teenagers behind the gym — so it seems that the big picture says higher cognition goes hand in hand with the desire to get high, to cushion the impact of what that higher cognition tells us.
But back to the aqueous version of Bud. Since the dawn of the television age, beer has been a goliath advertiser. It began pretty awkwardly, with a generalized kind of sponsoring, or profoundly cheesy catchphrases, and even badly animated bears. But by the 1980s, beer promotion had found its sweet spot though the “lifestyle” spot. Your taste-free carbonated alcohol in the well-designed packaging was — regardless of brand — the magic key to a land of sunshine, leisure, flirting women and friends, friends, friends.
Now, pause to compare public image of marijuana use. This is the polar opposite of Coors/Bud/Miller World. (Can you imagine the casting call? “Any ethnicity, 20s, scruffy losers preferred.”) It calls into question the billions upon billions that Big Beer has spent on ad campaigns over the decades.
Did any Miller purchaser harbor hopes that the sun-dappled babes would really descend once he got out of the grocery store? Did he imagine that his friends would multiply and become more attractive? I think not, and I don’t think anyone experienced the chasm between Coors/Bud/Miller World and the real world as a disappointment. Sure, it’d be nice if you could buy that life with your six pack, but since you couldn’t at least you could purchase some respite from the life you had.
There’s no way that this particular bit of business data has escaped the notice of the big brewers and they’ve got to be having some pretty interesting conversations. After all, an improvised industry of dubious legality, with a zero advertising budget and a massive image problem is eating their lunch. How can you be a Big Beer exec signing off on your portion of the industry’s two billion dollar annual PR bill and not think — huh.
In other words, Bud must secretly be thinking about getting into the business of bud. The only hitch being that no one’s really sure how legal all this is and the reprieve from the wilds of illegality may only be a brief window. But my suspicion is that history will take another direction. After all, there’s big money to be made, and besides, a docile populace is a good populace isn’t it?