Beer companies turn to viral ads

ST. LOUIS Dubbed "Swear Jar," the too-risque-for-TV ad debuted on the Internet in 2007. A minute long, it begins with an office worker asking about a jar at the reception desk. It's a "swear jar," he's told: Anyone who swears puts in a quarter. The expletives fly when workers learn the money will be used to buy a case of Bud Light (the roughly 17 bad words are bleeped out).

"Poop," a mousy woman says as she struggles with the copy machine. "Doesn't count," a co-worker tells her. "Shut the #$% up!" she shoots back.

It's part of a fast-growing growing trend, now increasingly embraced by beer makers and other mainstream marketers. Known as viral ads, such Web-only spots have become YouTube staples and show up in social networking pages, get e-mailed between friends and co-workers, though whether they generate sales remains an open question.

Viral ads have the freedom to run as long or short as they want - no 30- or 60-second constraints. They can cross boundaries even cable TV respects, and they focus on entertainment as much selling the product. Some are shot - or made to look like they're shot - with hand-held cameras, just like the most of the rest of the videos in those Web venues.

Viral marketing has been around for more than a decade, but viral video ads have grown in popularity as it has become easier to watch and share video on the Web and video-sharing sites like YouTube have grown. Forrester Research estimates interactive advertising was worth $20 billion in the U.S. this year and projects that amount will triple by 2012.

"It's definitely a trend, definitely happening," said Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer's Insights. "But it's still, relatively speaking, a small part of total (advertising) spending. The big part is still (on) sports on TV. That's still where the action is for the young adult male target."

Saint Louis University marketing professor Jim Fisher said viral ads work in part because consumers share them, offer online comments and even do their own parodies and video responses.

"One of the most credible forms of information is that which comes from friends, colleagues, neighbors: the so-called word-of-mouth effect," Fisher said. "Ads like this create that buzz and excitement, the kind of things that traditional advertising is a little more hard-pressed to deliver."

Breweries' viral ads aim squarely at the young men central to their demographic.

"If you look at what has happened, their attention is getting fragmented," said Andy England, marketing chief for Golden, Colo.-based Coors Brewing Co. "Even if they're watching television, they've got a laptop on their lap, looking at YouTube or MySpace."

Coors this spring released two Web ads touting wide-mouth Coors Light cans, dubbed "Smooth Pour Crew." In one, a couple of young men crash a bar; in another, it's a backyard barbecue. One guy runs the video camera while the other annoys the beer drinkers, then amazes them with his ability to pour beer from the wide-mouth can into a glass from atop a picnic table, behind his back from a rooftop, from the rafters of the tavern.

The ads have had a combined half-million views, England said.

Marketers say it's vital to make the ads entertaining.

"And you have to be very gentle in your branding," England said. "Otherwise, that is something of a turnoff."

When DDB, the Chicago-based advertising agency, came up with "Swear Jar" for Anheuser-Busch Cos., officials at the nation's largest brewery quickly decided TV wasn't the right medium.

"It's very young, very fun, and it's a bit in the personality of Bud Light, what people will do for a Bud Light," said Keith Levy, Anheuser-Busch's vice president of brand management. "It just seemed like the perfect content for the Web."

DDB's Steve Jackson said "Swear Jar" has been viewed more than 12 million times on Web sites and via e-mail. Versions are available in Russian, Chinese and other languages.

Consumers today "like to know they've been the first one to find something funny," Jackson said. "There are guys today saying, 'Hey, have you seen this funny commercial?' And it's been out for months."

Jackson said DDB first introduced a Web-only ad to complement Anheuser-Busch's "Whassup!?" campaign, which began in late 1999.

"That's where we really started to see how powerful this could be," he said. "You give consumers something they can have fun with."

Today, Anheuser-Busch is using viral ads to expand on its TV "Dude" campaign. Other beer makers also use Web ads as part of broader marketing efforts. Miller High Life delivery man Windell pops in at stores in TV spots, either lauding merchants for their common sense or chastising those who lack it. He rants in a 2-minute-long Web-only spot about silly Super Bowl ads.

Despite the popularity of some spots, marketers remain selective about using viral ads as they continue to evaluate their effectiveness.

"How well does that sell beer? Still working on that one," said Coors Brewing's England.

Jackson, at DDB, said one important thing about viral ads is that people viewing them are doing so because they want to. They're not a captive audience.

"You can assume you have full attention, full engagement as they look at these," he said. "It's not a passive act."

Levy, with Anheuser-Busch, said companies need to be certain they put good work on the Web. After all, if a TV ad campaign turns flat, you can pull the spots. Not so with ads on the Web.

"Once it's out there, it's out there pretty much forever," Levy said.


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