On PBR and Hipsterism

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The Cake Doughnut Theory

Euromonitor DataIn the frenzied world of marketing and advertising, whenever something works, no matter by what dark art or manic alchemy, the consultants and strategy wonks would fain bottle that lightning and use it for their own ends. This summer, the blogosphere has been all atwitter over a study released in May in the Journal of Consumer Research citing data that showed a direct correlation between a brand’s perceived “autonomy” and its resulting estimation of “coolness.” The paper focused specifically on Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR) and how, from the historic Milwaukee brewery’s shuttering in 1996 and its nadir in 2001 when sales dropped below 1 million barrels, it rallied to nearly 6 million barrels in 2012 riding a wave of counter-cultural cachet even as beer consumption overall and the big beer conglomerates like Bud, Miller, and Coors in particular saw a steady decline – not to mention PBR’s brothers in subpremium arms who don’t even bother with catchy labels, girls in bikinis, or anthropomorphized terriers sporting Hawaiian shirts. This phenomenon, according to the study and the tsunami of articles it engendered, is down to the coolness bestowed upon the brand by hipsters from Brooklyn to Portland, owing to Pabst’s apparent autonomy.

But this, I think, is only half the story. One of the study’s authors, Dr. Margaret Campbell, talked to Outside Magazine, whose writer was wringing her hands over whether her decidedly uncool husband’s purchase of PBR signaled the arrival of peak-PBR and the ultimate demise of the brand’s resurgence. Hipsters, if the term still obtains, are noted – and oft maligned – for their skinny jeans and beards and Wayfarers and predilection for obscure bands like Animal Collective. But when it comes to beer, hipsters are just as likely to be characterized as drinking artisanal craft beer as they are PBR – opposite ends of the brewing spectrum. Dr. Campbell explains that the point at which counter-cultural consumers (read: hipsters) perceive something as cool corresponds to a higher level of perceived autonomy, or the degree to which a brand is thought to be self-directed, independent, and marching to its own beat. Pabst, of course, is not autonomous. It has been owned by a series of investors and its numerous product lines including Old Milwaukee, Colt 45, and even Texas’ former Lone Star have been contract-brewed first by Stroh’s in 1996 and now by Miller since 2001. So what gives? Journalists everywhere have basically credited the Pabst marketing team with Machiavellian levels of chicanery in foisting cheap, mass-produced lager on unsuspecting hipsters. This, I fear, is putting the effects before the cause.

By definition, the counter-culture rejects the prevailing societal norms, and from the original hipsters of the Jazz-era to the hippies of 60’s and 70’s to the reborn hipsters of today, all pride themselves on eschewing their parents’ proclivities, remaining aloof from the corporate mainstream, and engaging in unconventional activities. But when Pabst brand ambassadors sponsored a bike messenger rodeo, they weren’t sowing the seeds of the PBR renaissance, they were responding to a cohort that had already adopted their product, and the fact that you’ve never seen a PBR commercial doesn’t mean the brand has succeeded in some “non-marketing marketing” strategy, it means they’ve succeeded almost despite themselves. This is what has advertising executives in a tizzy and social scientists in the lab. This is also why they’re doomed to missing the point. They want to discover exactly how Pabst became the cool kid in class instead of looking at why the cool kids embraced the brand. If journalists want to pinpoint the moment at which peak-PBR was reached and the decline and fall commenced, they have to look at the moment when PBR co-opted a success story that was not their own.

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Ours is a family that is wont to linger after any community event, one that requires staff usher us out even as the lights go down. It’s great for catching up with old friends after a reunion, for example, but it’s less than ideal when you’re a 10-year-old kid trying to get to the doughnuts after Sunday Mass. The traditional post-liturgical Coffee & Doughnuts was de rigueur for adults to visit with the priest and parents to chat relatively peacefully while their offspring were kept occupied with sweets. I suppose a few moments’ respite was worth the ensuing spike in blood sugar levels and the subsequent crash. By the time we got to the school cafeteria or the parish hall or wherever they were serving the melange of mid-morning munchies – and free, no less! – sure, there were the remnants of the requisite superfluity of glazed doughnuts, but what forever taunted me were the strewn sprinkles and assorted casualties of foregone frosted fantasies. The air hung heavy with the scent of stale coffee and pastry missed connections. Obviously if there had been a mad dash from the church so that whatever pentecostal Protesilaus might be the first to shove only the most ornate and richly festooned confections into his gaping maw, surely those specimens must be the best, most desirable of the lot, right? Those must be the delights to which one must aspire, the spoils that go only to the victors, the fleetest of foot – their just desserts, no?

Plain Cake Doughnut

Of course I would inevitably get my hands on one of those treats, but perhaps it tasted like so much ash in my mouth, or simply didn’t live up to expectations. Either way, I came to disregard them because I had taken notice that invariably, off in the corner, largely neglected by the masses, were a few boxes of plain cake doughnuts. No icing, no sprinkles, no nothing. People would be milling about as if all the doughnuts were gone, lifting lids to find nothing but crumbs, slowly making their way towards the door. I could bide my time near the plain cake doughnuts, eating as many as I wanted. While the others hovered around the more colorful options, every weekend I would go over to the boxes of cake doughnuts and contentedly graze on as many as my childhood metabolism could handle, essentially saying – though I hadn’t yet formulated the sentiment – “Screw you guys and your manic pursuit of sprinkles; I’m eating these.”

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Scrutiny of the hipster demographic is subject to its own sort of Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, where as soon as you put it under the microscope it morphs and vacillates, often by the mere virtue of being observed. And, of course, as Shilton approximates in her Outside article, if you use the term or apply it to yourself, you probably aren’t one. But having spent nocturnal hours infiltrating and observing their kind in the wild after shedding the diurnal costume of a cubicle-dwelling square, I’ve never understood or agreed with the sort of sociological treatises one reads about the hipster phenomenon, probably because the very stethoscope they’re using to get the pulse of the ethos invalidates their conclusions. The Hipsterberg Uncertainty Principle.

It’s not that hipsters choose something for what it is, they choose it for what it is not. This is often shoveled under the rubric of “Irony” that hipsters are so often described as embracing. Let’s face it, PBR is not good beer. Hipsters didn’t go out and choose it because of some marketing scheme Pabst devised, they chose it because everyone else was going for the shiny Bud Lights – or, at least, Anheuser-Busch was spending billions of dollars to convince them they should. The big advertising juggernauts, the Super Bowl commercials, those beers are the sprinkly doughnuts. PBR was the plain cake doughnut. It was chosen to spite what everyone else was doing. Screw you guys, I’m drinking this. There’s also a sort of retro chic draw to it. After all, dads were the first hipsters. I bought a bocce ball set years ago because I found an old dusty set at a friend’s lakehouse, thought it was goofy retro fun, and thought, “Nobody plays bocce ball; I will.”

There are two types of hipsters, or, really, there are two types in any cultural group. The ones who are the trendsetters and those that follow and disseminate the trends to their peers. There are also the hipsters who wear thrift store clothes because that’s all they can afford, and the trust fund hipsters who can afford the whims of a Bohemian lifestyle. The former seek the autonomy of self-direction. They don’t reject social norms, because what’s normal? They reject the prevailing social proclivities, the herd mentality, they’re a horse of a different color. The latter are just seeking autonomy from their parents. They reject the rules of their father’s house even as he pays their bills. It’s the latter who try to buy the trappings and the aesthetic of the former, and it’s the latter who are so often mocked. The former go to a concert where nobody else is, which is precisely why they knew about bands before you did and abandon them once you do. The latter choose something discordant simply because “fuck dad’s Lawrence Welk.” Both will be at a Vampire Weekend concert. That the choices of the two so often dovetail is the latter’s delight and the former’s lament.

As many sociologists have pointed out, these consumer choices become a sort of social signifier, a flag that is flown to identify the bearer as a member of a certain demographic. So, the trendsetters take PBR as their beer of choice, the followers adopt it to self-identify with the group they wish to emulate. The Pabst marketers didn’t first put PBR in the hands of the Portlandia set, they saw its burgeoning acceptance by a certain market segment and carefully nurtured it along. What they did correctly was ascertain at ground level that the thing to do with their new-found popularity was almost nothing. Let the trendsetters come to them. The thing for the advertising industry to take away from the PBR phenomenon is not how Pabst attracted consumers, it’s why the consumers chose Pabst. There are two essential reasons:

  1. icecubeIt’s cheap. There can be no denying that the counter-culture tends to be populated by the artistic and creative set, from the hep cats of the Jazz Era to the Beat Generation to today’s Hipsters. They’re musicians and bartenders and chefs and writers. They don’t have a lot of money – unless they find mainstream success at which point their former idolaters will probably forsake them as having “sold out.” It happens in every genre. Is the Ice Cube of “Are We There Yet?” the same as the Ice Cube of N.W.A.? Maybe that’s all the term “hipster” really means anymore: dropping something once it becomes mainstream. In any event, this group is going to drink whatever costs a buck, like Lone Stars (also a Pabst product, coincidentally) at Griff’s on Friday night. I remember drinking Busch Light back in college simply because it cost like $3.99 for a six pack of tallboys.
  2. Because fuck you, that’s why. Also called “consumption as protest” by some sociologists, where a brand is preferred primarily or even exclusively because it’s a rejection of what everybody else is doing or what big conglomerates are trying to impose. They have beards because clean-shaven squares go to an office.

But my cake donut theory is that it’s not so much an active protest against society as it is a passive reclamation of the detritus cast aside by society making “progress” towards some glittering false icon of modernity. The macro-beer companies are beige walls and fluorescent lighting, they’re telling you to aspire to some hollow ideal they’ve constructed for you. The “retro-chic” zeitgeist is a longing for the days of making things with your hands, banjos in your bluegrass, raising animals and growing crops locally where you follow them to your table. It’s the artisanal nature of the entire demographic, and why hipsters are just as often pictured drinking craft beer as PBR. But craft beers are often expensive. Trying to understand how PBR marketers got to the hipster demographic and sold them a bill of goods is to put the effect before the cause. It’s like the analogy of the blind golfer: you can’t point to the million-to-one miracle that his tee shot landed on a specific blade of grass unless you called out that blade of grass beforehand. He was always going to hit some blade of grass, but you didn’t know which one. The hipsters were always going to pick a beer. What the marketers want to do is get you to pick theirs. They only knew after the fact that PBR was chosen, the trick is knowing why.

A certain segment will keep drinking PBR forever because of reason #1. The rest will probably move on once everybody else is drinking it because of reason #2. But #1 isn’t holding fast. Analysis is already showing that PBR’s rise in popularity is bringing prices with it, not just for itself, but for subpremium beers across the board. It seems to have become a Veblen good, where a rise in price only makes it the more attractive.

What beer will become the next cool kid in class? It will be cheap, it will have a blue collar or artisanal aesthetic, and disregard the most popular cliques. One thing’s for sure: the marketers will probably be the last to know.

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