how much meaning is embedded in a single beverage?
The so-called “Beer Summit” occurred today. The premise of this meeting between Barack Obama, Henry Louis Gates, and James Crowley— a Cambridge police officer— was the culmination of a lot of recent speculation about latent racist attitudes, profiling, and the state of race relations in America. The event hinged on an incident in which Gates was trying to get back into his house after apparently being locked out, and being challenged by a white police officer for appearing to be breaking-and-entering. Allegations about police making assumptions about black men committing crimes were made and it soon turned into the subject of a national debate.
But Obama, ever the diplomat, invited the parties over to the White House garden for some beers (one each) and a bit of mano-a-mano discussion. A lot could be said about the political nature of this event, but what I’m interested in is what apparently the media made a big fuss about: the beer that each individual was going to choose to drink at this event.
It’s fascinating that a single beer could be so embedded with symbolic meaning. This is the nature of the post-modern world, in which many brands are reservoirs of symbolism and fit so prominently into the public’s schemas about social groups. As I mentioned in a previous post, David Foster Wallace once commented that he’d read books in which a character’s personality could be succinctly conveyed simply by naming the brand of T-shirt the character wore. That’s how much meaning we associate with certain brands. Thus, it was a matter of apparent great symbolic import what beer these gentlemen were having on this momentous occasion.
Gates, a Harvard professor, chose a Samuel Adams Light, while Crowley chose a Blue Moon (with an orange slice). Obama, ever the epicurean (what with his much-ridiculed taste for arugula), chose Bud Light. This invites the question of why, if you were the ostensible leader of the free world, you would ever choose a Bud Light. Maybe I’m more of a beer snob than I realize, but of all the world’s beers I could choose, Bud Light would be somewhat at the bottom of my list. Perhaps I am being a bit presumptuous here, but it seems highly unlikely that a man of Obama’s stature and taste would voluntarily choose a Bud Light if given unrestricted choice.
But of course, we have to think about the symbolic value of his choice. Bud Light is the best-selling beer in America, and has been since 2001; apparently it accounts for a massive 22% of case sales in the United States! It carries with it so many symbolic, populist overtones. It’s what any blue collar American would drink. Not like that elitist, hoity-toity microbrew stuff, and especially not one of those foreign beers that wasn’t brewed on our shores.
According to a Republican strategist quoted in an article from Bloomberg, Obama is “trying to send a message that he’s an average American… [He could] complicate that by making an exotic choice, or an import, or too expensive.” Indeed, imagine what the news sources would say if he drank, say, a Heineken, a Sapporo, or a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale. He was already skewered by Fox News’ Sean Hannity for asking for Grey Poupon at a diner several months ago.
There is a rather unexpected complication to Obama’s choice, however. Budweiser was sold to the Belgian company InBev back in July 2008, making Bud Light not quite an American beer. Sure it’s brewed here and it’s a traditionally American brand, but it’s no longer owned by an American company, so perhaps it can’t be viewed as wholly American as say, Coors.* Nevertheless, I think most Americans probably still view Budweiser as a culturally American beer and don’t really know much or care much about the location of the headquarters of the huge international beverage conglomerate that owns it.
Bud Light, viewed strictly on symbolic terms and with the intent of being an uncontroversial choice for a nation who, during the 2004 presidential election was inexplicably obsessed with choosing the candidate who one would most like to have a beer with, was a good selection. It’s a best-seller, has no particular subculture attached to it, and is sold pretty much everywhere. It’s hard to beat that. As Al Ries, an Atlanta-based marketer told Bloomberg, “Leading brands tend to be a very safe choice for a politician because, in a sense, they’re saying to the public, ‘You picked it, not me. I’m just reflecting your choice.’”
Interestingly, little commentary has been made on Crowley’s choice. The police officer was easily the most blue-collar fellow at the table, and chose what is probably the most “elitist” beer (if such a concept can be meaningfully applied) in terms of popular conception. Most people likely have not even heard of Blue Moon as it is the type of beer that is typically served in “uppity” and yuppy-type hangouts, not roadside dive bars. In reality, however, Blue Moon is rather surreptitiously brewed by Coors, though they do not advertise this and do not have the Coors name listed anywhere on any Blue Moon products. The company (rightly) assumes that the Coors name will reduce the brand equity of this macrobrew masquerading as a microbrew.
Gates’ choice was a sensible one; he lives in Cambridge, just outside of Boston, and he chose a beer that is brewed in Boston, perhaps a symbolic nod to his affection for the area despite his recent conflicts.
All in all, somewhat interesting choices made by all three gentlemen. I would, however, have loved to hear what kind of public commentary would have been made had Obama chosen the ultimate in a confounding beer with multiplex meanings: Pabst Blue Ribbon. Is he kowtowing to rednecks? Bikers? Hipsters? Cheapskates? In a perfect world, he would have chosen it, and it would have been a wonderful and puzzling mystery to unravel.
* You could tell that around the time of the sale of Anheuser-Busch to InBev that the company got kind of nervous about how its customers might perceive this traitorous act of selling out a quintessentially American brand to Europeans; they responded by creating and heavily advertising something called Budweiser American Ale, repeating the world “American” many times in the ads to reinforce the idea that this was a American drink.
1. The Bloomberg Article
2. “How Brands Become Icons: The Principles of Cultural Branding” by Douglas Holt