Aspirational Marketing and the Unintended Irony of Pabst Beer

Readers, enjoy the following quote, and tell me that it doesn't make you utterly distrust all consumer branding and market segmenting techniques:

"In the early 2000s, Pabst was struggling financially. It had maxed out the white rural population that formed the core of its customer base, and it was selling less than 1 million barrels of beer a year, down from 20 million in 1970. If Pabst wanted to sell more beer, it had to look elsewhere, and Neal Stewart, a midlevel marketing manager, did. Stewart went to Portland, Oregon, where Pabst numbers were surprisingly strong and an ironic nostalgia for white working-class culture (remember trucker hats?) was widespread. If Pabst couldn't get people to drink its watery brew sincerely, Steward figured, maybe they could get people to drink it ironically. Pabst began to sponsor hipster events--gallery openings, bike messenger races, snowboarding competitions, and the like. Within a year, sales were way up--which is why, if you walk into a bar in certain Brooklyn neighborhoods, Pabst is more likely to be available than other low-end American beers.

That's not the only excursion in reinvention that Pabst did. In China, where it is branded a 'world-famous spirit,' Pabst has made itself into a luxury beverage for the cosmopolitan elite. Advertisements compare it to 'Scotch whisky, French brandy, Bordeaux wine,' and present it in a fluted champagne glass atop a wooden cask. A bottle runs about $44 in U.S. currency."

--From The Filter Bubble by Eli Pariser

So, to sum up: a mediocre beer is consumed by one group because it's cheap, by another group because it's expensive, and by a third group because it's ironic.

And yet it's the same beer. Just branded three different ways for three entirely separate populations.

Of course, there's also an implicit--perhaps even a desperate--presumption that these three populations never meet. After all, what would happen if our Chinese elite were to discover the "world-famous spirit" he buys as an act of identity construction was actually considered a mediocre beer in the USA? Worse still, what if he were to discover he was paying forty times the actual market price for this mediocre beer?

Do you think our Chinese national would be happy to learn this? Would he continue to buy it?

The answer is obvious: it would be inconceivable for him to continue buying this beer. Once he knows what it really is, and thus learns that he had previously been fooled into paying forty times the market price for it, the "value" of this product vanishes instantly. The next time he drinks a Pabst, he might as well also wear a bright red headband that says "I am a sucker" in Chinese characters. No one gets identity construction from being a sucker.

Finally, let's consider our Brooklyn- or Portland-based hipster. What happens when she learns the beer she drinks ironically is sold to wealthy Chinese elites at 40 times the price? For context, this would be like paying $1,000,000 for a Chevy sedan, or $2,400 for a pair of Levi's jeans. Wouldn't this knowledge make her feel icky, or worse, inauthentic?

This is all the wrong kind of irony.

Readers, if you ever want to see aspirational marketing for what it really is, please remember this painful example of Pabst beer. Do you still need more proof that aspirationally marketed products rudely and needlessly separate you from your money?

What are your thoughts?

How can I support Casual Kitchen?
Easy. Do all your shopping at via the links on this site! You can also link to me or subscribe to my RSS feed. Finally, consider sharing this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to Facebook, Twitter (follow me @danielckoontz!) or to bookmarking sites like reddit, digg or stumbleupon. I'm deeply grateful to my readers for their ongoing support.


Anonymous said...

Aw c'mon, PBR is legit! After all it won its Blue Ribbon at the Chicago World Exposition of 1893. :)

Daniel said...

Sure, but is it "$44 a bottle" legit?


Stuart Carter said...

Just at the end of the year - in time for Christmas - Guinness released a special, limited edition, 1759 recipe porter in a handsome box set 750ml. Retail $35.

So, for the price of a case of a locally brewed porter I could get one bottle of Guinness. Or not, as the case may be.

Marcia said...

I grew up in a family that drank a lot of Pabst. You can probably guess which group I fell into (hint: I'm not Chinese and we weren't hipsters).

It's funny how perceptions change - I'm not a fan of watery beer in general. I like dark beers (also not a fan of IPA, which seems to be a current trend here). Anyway, I remember moving to DC after college and the big thing was Rolling Rock. And...that was the cheap beer when I was in college. But to my friends, it was the cool beer.