If you owned a beer company, what would be your ultimate marketing dream?
How about placing a beer commercial in every college bar and fraternity
organization? There, luscious, tan line-free women and confident,
upper-social-strata jocks would aggressively promote your brands with all
the slick enthusiasm of a Madison Avenue production. Imagine these
commercials playing in continuous motion throughout the evening without
ever resorting to the obvious loops of promotional films. Because this
commercial would be live. That's right, real people targeting real college
beer drinkers at that crucial moment in their lives when they establish
brand loyalty, using no other sales technique than old-fashioned peer
For Anheuser-Busch, the parent company of Budweiser, the dream of
student recruitment is real. It wasn't easy or cheap. Or, some
argue, anywhere close to ethical. Parenting groups have recently
attacked Anheuser-Busch for their animated frog 'n' lizard advertising
campaign, but a Salon investigation has found that the brewer does more
than create cute cartoon characters to court underage drinkers. By hiring
popular fraternity members and attractive female students as
representatives, Anheuser-Busch distributors directly target the
largely underage college market.
Considering Harvard's well-publicized 1993 study declaring that 44
percent of American college students and 86 percent of fraternity
members qualify as binge drinkers, such a marketing program seems
ridiculously ill-advised. Isn't hiring college students a potential PR
nightmare? After all, 90 percent of all rapes and most violent crimes on
campus are alcohol-related.
Such statistics may not have deterred Anheuser-Busch, but they do
explain why its college recruiting efforts are managed discreetly.
Even the beer industry's most prominent critic, Mothers Against Drunk
Driving, was unaware that college reps existed.
"Hiring fraternity members as beer distributor reps on university
campuses where the majority of students are under the legal drinking age of
21 is frightening and unbelievably irresponsible," said MADD's national
president, Karolyn V. Nunnallee, upon hearing the news. "We urge the U.S.
beer industry to re-examine its marketing efforts."
Last November, midlevel supervisors for Anheuser-Busch wholesaler Brown
Distributing allowed me to join their college representatives working a Budweiser parade leading to a University of Texas football game and a night of "bar calls" in Austin. While many alcohol companies hire attractive women to push products in bars and sporting events across the country, these Bud representatives seemed to be recruited predominantly from the college population and assigned to a college beat: They frequent popular college watering holes, sporting events and other events such as parties at the U.T. alumni center. Of more concern are the existence of fraternity members who work unsupervised in the promotion of their product for college parties. The access was unusual, and the vice president for Brown Distributing later
expressed some irritation, commenting that any media inquiries normally
require approval from a high-ranking executive.
In other words: oops.
"When we walk into a bar, all we have is ourselves," says 24-year-old
Bud Girl Rachel Moore, a recent college graduate. "We may be passing out a
key chain or something, but we make the promotion."
Brown Distributing Bud Girls (we'll get to the male representatives
later) are held to strict standards. A Bud Girl doesn't smoke, swear, use drugs or
have tattoos, non-ear piercings or a criminal record.
Her only permissible vice is drinking Budweiser, and that, of course, is
mandatory. If a potential Bud Girl passes the interviews, background checks
and drug testing, she's awarded a $15-an-hour part-time position and a Bud
Bud Girl clothing isn't simply halter tops and spandex
dresses. The wardrobe is Technicolor dream-wear that transforms attractive
yet otherwise ordinary girls into a sort of beer-touting Justice
League. Once in costume, the Bud Girls are superheroes whose sexual
power turns any bar into one of those 1980s beer commercials, where the
swimsuit model reduces men to puddles of gratitude and adoration.
"I wonder who they think we actually are," says 28-year-old Bud Girl
Griselda Mendoza. "[The clothes] change everything. They could see me at a
supermarket and I won't get paid much attention. But put on a little Bud
vest and all of a sudden guys want everything signed."
At one bar promotion I attended, the Bud Girls were asked to sign a
promotional banner. They wrote: "This Bud's For You, We Love You." And,
in their own way, they do. And men, in their own way, believe it. Bud
Girls seem to enjoy their part-time work as hops goddesses as much as
men enjoy begging at their feet for key chains and cozies. But just how
widespread are these lust-driven promotions?
All of the Big Three American labels (Budweiser, Miller and
Coors, which constitute nearly 80 percent of the U.S. beer market)
practice some college recruiting. But Anheuser-Busch, with nearly
50 percent of the market, has the most extensive program. Miller
marketing representative Ann Espey said her company has recently "shied
away" from hiring on campus, and agreed that hiring male fraternity representatives is irresponsible. Similarly, Coors spokesman Dave Taylor says his company has "moved away" from such practices. Although "shied away" and "moved away" suggest that Coors and Miller have made significant policy changes, neither representative will say the practice is extinct.
"You need to understand the primary consumer target for beer companies
is young adult males," Taylor says. "Historically, college programs were
very common in the industry when the drinking age was 18. Now at the local
level, with 600 independent distributors, does hiring models still occur?
"At the local level" is another key phrase. Because beer girls and
college programs are run by independent distributors, parent companies
often feign ignorance of the practice. Likewise, while some distributors
have never even heard of student recruiting ("College representatives?" asked a
shocked receptionist at the Ann Arbor, Mich., Anheuser-Busch wholesaler. "This is
a beer distributor, sir"), wholesalers in cities like Tucson, Los
Angeles and Denver have programs in place.
To set the stage for the Bud Girls, these distributors pre-pack college
bars with streamers, table tents, coasters, inflatable footballs,
pool-table lamps, posters and, of course, neon signs. Add the Bud Girls and
the stage is set. The live commercial begins.
Two local students, Christi Voigt, 21, and Jaime Franks, 22, enter the
Austin BW-3 chicken wing franchise during a Dallas Cowboys football game.
They're wearing blue Bud Light halter tops and denim shorts. Bud Girls say
they prefer the shorts-and-halter-top ensemble to the classic
beer can-print spandex dress, but noted the distribution company prefers
the tight dress because "It's more visible." (As Mendoza wryly noted, "A
lot of guys have a misconception that if a girl is wearing a dress that looks
like a beer can, they can pick us up.")
Although Voigt and Franks give away some free key chains and beers to
the rowdy crowd, they mostly distribute charm. Bud Girls have charm on the
fly. Once in gear, the beer drinker is the center of attention. The beer
drinker is witty and attractive. But if said beer drinker refuses to change
brands or asks the nauseatingly common "Can I have you with that beer?"
query, the Bud Girl downshifts: The beer drinker is a gnat, an impotent man
unworthy of a Bud Girl's slightest concern. They remain professional --
the smile never wavers -- but the charm is gone and patrons can read "get
lost" right through their Colgate teeth.
In other words, Bud Girls can really mess with a beer drinker's self-esteem.
Franks walks up to a table of four students. She makes eye contact with
the tallest male in the group, tilts her head, and slowly asks, "What kind
of beer are you drinking?"
He guiltily stammers something about Dos Equis.
She purposefully lays down a key chain bottle opener in front of him,
never breaking eye contact.
"What will you drink now?"
She smiles: Good boy.
The display is impressive, but Voigt and Franks are rookies. Bud Girl
supervisor Eric Bradford sips his Budweiser and wistfully recalls veterans
who'd brazenly grab a customers' non-Bud beer and dump it out.
Whether sweet or savage, all Bud Girls operate on the same basic
principle: their well-endowed bodies become the curvy slates upon which
beer slogans and men's horny dreams are projected. The male of the Bud species
functions a bit differently ...
A male college representative doesn't wear a spandex dress. He doesn't
even need to wear his Budweiser polo shirt. His body is not a billboard for
Budweiser. It's a double standard straight out of traditional beer
commercials, where sexily dressed women wear the product and the cool guys
just look like ... cool guys. Whenever the male rep wishes, he goes
unescorted to campus-area bars and buys Bud products for students with
his expense account.
Corby Ferrell is one of the seven U.T. college reps (or "contemporary
marketing representatives," as Budweiser calls them), all of whom are in
separate fraternities. Together, the reps keep Budweiser products flowing
from local sellers to the frat houses and campus-area parties. Ferrell is
the 21-year-old former chairman of Phi Gamma Delta and has blond,
anchorman-quality hair. Two or three times a week, Ferrell will go in Cain
& Abel's bar located in the heart of Greek territory and approach
attractive women drinking Miller or Coors.
"Hey, what do you think about switching to Bud Light for the night?"
he'll ask. "The first one is on me, and I'll buy you another before I
Ferrell admits he has "an awesome job."
The second responsibility of male representatives is to arrange beer
sales through local vendors. To dispel any confusion about the ethical or
legal implications of this practice, Ferrell explains that technically the
fraternity organizations do not pay for the beer: "Members who are at least
21 years old pool their cash to buy beer for parties." When his work with college fraternity members and local vendors leads to a volume sale (five cases of beer, for example), Ferrell is given a commission by Brown Distributing.
One sales tactic is for the college rep to establish a relationship with
campus-area sellers, then ask who's buying large quantities of competing
brands. "Then I'll call the buyer and say, 'I can get you 100 cases of
[Anheuser-Busch product] Natural Light for at least as cheap as what
you're paying for Keystone Light,'" Ferrell says.
On average, Ferrell moves 300 cases per week to college buyers.
"Fraternities drink the cheapest beer they can find," Bradford, the Bud Girl supervisor, explains.
"And his job is to make sure they drink our cheap beer."
Neither Ferrell nor Bradford seem reckless or irresponsible, but still
-- having a Budweiser representative as fraternity chairman is like having
Joe Camel as a high school football quarterback. Both popular figureheads not only have a vested interest in which brands are consumed, but the quantity as well.
"I think it's better that we do have them out there because of the
message that we're bringing," says Laurie Watson, vice president of Brown
Distributing. "We're constantly preaching responsibility."
Watson was the only senior-level Anheuser-Busch representative willing
to comment for this story. A marketing representative for the
Anheuser-Busch corporate office at first denied any knowledge of the college program, then agreed only to confirm some facts and produce a copy of the Anheuser-Busch College Marketing Code. The code touts Anheuser-Busch's support of alcohol awareness education and stresses that distributors must limit event sponsorship to venues that check I.D.
Bartenders and doormen do check I.D.s, of course. But the Bud Girl handing
out free beers doesn't know how much alcohol a patron has
consumed. Likewise, frat representatives only card the one individual
buying beer for a party.
"[Students are] going to have a beer," Watson says. "We just want them
to be responsible about it. The representatives always talk to them about
"At least," she adds, "I hope they do. They're supposed to."
Imagine a 21-year-old Bud rep arranging a sale of 100 cases of Natural
Light, then lecturing to the buyer about responsible drinking. It doesn't
click, it doesn't work. The people at Bud must be dreaming. And maybe they
are dreaming ... still. Dreaming of college market saturation, dreaming of
young male demographics and dreaming of decades of brand loyalty to come.
One week after my Bud barhopping tour, University of Texas junior and
Phi Kappa Sigma fraternity member Jack Ivey consumed about 20 drinks, then
fell asleep on his apartment couch. He was pronounced dead the next morning
of alcohol poisoning, just the latest binge-drinking fatality. Whether Ivey
is in the dreams of any beer marketers, no one can say.