Columnists > Judgment Calls

The king shark

Anheuser-Busch continues to market to "future beer drinkers"

Issue: "A vacation from PC," June 3, 2000

I teach creative writing at Jackson Elementary School, about 10 blocks north of downtown St. Louis, in a neighborhood of trash-strewn lots, empty buildings, and boarded-up cathedrals. The students are wonderful: eager, talented, and full of laughter. The school lacks resources to train them well, however, and is part of a city system that lost its state accreditation during the past year. The kids need all the help and attention they can get, and they drink it up thirstily. Imagine my surprise when I saw, tacked to the wall in a hallway at Jackson School, a large laminated poster with an Anheuser-Busch logo in the corner. It looked like part of a series. At the top, in embossed-looking gold cursive, it read "Great Kings of Africa," and in shining golden letters below, "Behanzin Hossu Bowelle, The King Shark (1841-1906)." Around a central map of Africa, full of tribal imagery, nearly illegible text talks for two paragraphs about Behanzin, and then launches into pro-Anheuser-Busch rhetoric: "For more than twenty years, Budweiser's Great Kings and Queens of Africa Program has made a unique and powerful contribution to African-American culture.... In 1999, Budweiser continues this proud tradition.... We at Anheuser-Busch are pleased to provide," etc., etc. If this sounds like copy from an insurance company desk calendar, it's no coincidence. These posters are written and produced by Busch Creative (, an agency that also provides a range of sales promotions and advertising services for Anheuser-Busch. In the consumer marketing industry, this kind of poster would usually be called a sales promotion vehicle. Since no one in his right mind would admit to distributing beer promotions to an elementary school, however, Anheuser-Busch categorizes this particular effort as "cultural outreach." There's been a lot of buzz in the past five years about Budweiser's advertising: Groups such as Mothers Against Drunk Driving say it targets underage children. The objections are understandable, since the three animated frogs croaking "Bud... Weis... Er" seem pulled right out of Sesame Street. Since their introduction in 1995, they have become cultural icons. Apparently, though, the mega-beer company doesn't take the accusations too seriously. Anheuser-Busch responded in 1997 by inventing talking lizards named Frank and Louie. They may as well have named them Bert and Ernie. A poll of 800 children ages 6 to 17 showed the Bud lizard commercials to be the most popular in a field of 240 advertisements (as reported by Advertising Age, March 26, 1998). The lizards have exited stage left, but Budweiser ads continue to appeal strongly to children. During an April 23 television broadcast of a St. Louis Cardinals baseball game, one of the broadcasters roamed Busch Stadium with microphone in hand and ended up in a birthday party suite full of teenage boys. After listing the benefits of the facility, he said, "Hey Bob. These kids have something to say!" He held out the mike to them, and they shouted in unison, "Whaaasssuup!!"-the humorous catch-phrase of Budweiser's latest ad campaign. The hallways of Jackson School display four "Great Kings and Queens of Africa" posters, some of them taped to classroom doors. Joan Parham, Jackson's Instructional Coordinator, said, "I think [the posters] are fantastic. They allow kids to drift back into some history they don't hear too often. I like the artwork-the depictions are great-they're colorful. I would almost say they are a bit glamorous." When asked whether she had considered that A-B might be using them as a marketing tool, she added, "There are so many things that are flawed-we just like them for what they do for the kids. We certainly do not advocate drinking. We're not looking at ulterior motives." She said that covering the logos might be a good solution. Anheuser-Busch would never admit to an agenda of brand-reinforcement among schoolchildren. After all, the posters are distributed free of charge and by request only. But the reality is that the "Great Kings and Queens of Africa" program enables A-B to display its logo at eye-level in the hallways of Jackson Elementary School. According to Thelma Cook, a senior member of the Corporate Affairs department which produces the posters, over five million Anheuser-Busch branded posters have been delivered to schools, individuals, and community centers since 1975. This school year is now done, but in the fall, if Anheuser-Busch wants to be charitable, why doesn't it begin producing posters with a name and logo other than its own? That would prove good intentions and avoid any hint of exploitation.

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