The Politics of Selling Beer

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A once-popular brand of beer is trying to make a comeback in New York City. And they're trying to do it with, of all things, political advertising. But WNYC's Brian Lehrer says don't believe the hype.

Brian: That, believe it or not, is a caller to my weekday talk show waxing nostalgic by singing the old jingle for Rheingold beer, accompanied, as it happens, by the new President and CEO of the company, Tom Bendheim, who was on as a guest.

Rheingold was once the city's best-selling beer, and the original beer sponsor of the Mets. But it left New York in 1974, dumping 60,000 gallons of unsold brew into Brooklyn's waterways for good measure. Not a pretty sight. Maybe some bluefish had a party that day.

Now, Rheingold is back, under new ownership, and trying to regain a foothold in the city. But the way they're doing it is highly unusual, and I think, kind of suspect. Rheingold is posing as a concerned corporate citizen, trying to win the hearts - and beer bellies - of New Yorkers angry with Mayor Bloomberg's nightlife polcies. Here's some audio from one of their ads.

That clinking sound at the end was ashtrays. That's right. Rheingold is trying to build beer sales on opposition to the mayor's smoking ban. Other ads target the city's cabaret laws and the mayor's alleged ticketing blitz. In this exchange I had with company president Bendheim, he admits it's a demographic strategy, after a young woman caller says it's a turnoff to her.

Caller: This will make me less likely to buy your beer.

Brian to Bendheim: You won't be the universal beer with this campaign, because the smoking ban is pretty popular.

Bendheim: But our target market is 21-35 year old males. They don't like the smoking ban, and they drink beer.

Personally, I'm not a smoker, but I am conflicted about the law. I do buy the mayor's argument that it's a workers rights issue, but I also think some compromise should be possible to accommodate smokers.

But it's just plain manipulative for a company to pass off a demographic marketing campaign as some kind of civic participation! So drink Rheingold or not, but when you see those phony political ads, remember what they're really about: manufacturing more anger so they can manufacture more beer.