By Todd C. Frankel
St. Louis Post-Dispatch
ST. LOUIS -- The iconic Budweiser Clydesdales have been sidelined from Anheuser-Busch's slate of nine commercials appearing during the upcoming Super Bowl.
Anheuser-Busch is using humor, not horses, to push leading brands Bud Light and Budweiser, complemented by shorter nods to Michelob Ultra and the new, low-calorie,
Select 55. The Super Bowl commercials range from scientists turning to Bud Light as they worry about an Earth-bound asteroid, to a small town working to rescue a beer truck, to a spoof of popular TV series "Lost."
The brewer remains a big spender on Super Bowl commercials, buying up five precious, pricey ad minutes for the Feb. 7 football game, at the high end of its usual buy.
But for the first time in at least eight Super Bowls, none of Anheuser-Busch commercials feature the iconic Clydesdale horses.
"What? You've got to be kidding me. I can't believe it," said John Antil, a Super Bowl advertising expert and University of Delaware marketing professor. The Clydesdales are "an American icon. They represent a lot of what's good about the company."
But Anheuser-Busch's top marketing executive, Keith Levy, said Tuesday that it was an unintentional outcome of focus-group testing.
"We did produce a Clydesdale spot," Levy said. "And we do continue to utilize Clydesdales in our marketing for Budweiser. But at the end of the day, I don't choose the spots. Brand managers don't choose the spots. The consumers do."
Television advertising is never more scrutinized than during the Super Bowl. The commercials are part of the game's attraction, helping explain why a 30-second spot goes for an estimated $2.5 million. Last year, 100 million people watched the game, according to Nielsen. Millions more watched the commercials online. And people love to talk about -- and vote on -- the best Super Bowl commercials. It's even noted when longtime advertisers drop out, which Pepsi, General Motors and Federal Express all did this year.
Controversy is part of the formula, too, from GoDaddy's racy commercials to an anti-abortion ad featuring college football star Tim Tebow that is expected to run during this year's game.
So the absence of Clydesdales in Anheuser-Busch's commercials -- especially after last year's Super Bowl contained three different spots with the horses -- does not go unnoticed.
This year's Anheuser-Busch commercials emphasize humor, a reaction to consumers worrying about the continuing economic slump and glum news overseas, Levy said. "There's a lot of heaviness pressing down on their lives. I think they want a departure from that. They want to laugh. They want to have fun. They want to celebrate."
The five Bud Light commercials, all produced by St. Louis ad agency Cannonball, take aim at being funny. In one spot, expected to run during the third quarter, a husband on his way to play softball interrupts his wife's book club when he sees Bud Light is being served. In another commercial, running during the first quarter, friends are amazed by a house built of blue Bud Light cans.
The two Budweiser commercials, scheduled for the second and fourth quarters, emphasize how the brand brings people together. A brief Select 55 ad, produced by St. Louis agency Momentum, comes days after the beer's national rollout. And a Michelob Ultra commercial pushes that brand as the choice drink for Type-A personalities and features cyclist Lance Armstrong "to really cement that association with him," Levy said.
MillerCoors is prevented from advertising on the Super Bowl national telecast by Anheuser-Busch's contract with the NFL. But using a tactic employed in years past, MillerCoors has bought airtime at the local level in some markets to air its own beer commercials during the big game.
The Clydesdales have been a part of Anheuser-Busch's image since 1933, when the horses were introduced to celebrate the repeal of Prohibition. Anheuser-Busch owns more than 200 Clydesdales. The brewer's traveling hitches make more than 500 public appearances a year.
The horses debuted in TV commercials in 1956 and have appeared in 15 Super Bowl ads -- from the Clydesdales playing football, to a young horse getting help with a hitch from his elders, to the unexpected friendship between a Clydesdale and Dalmation, to a Clydesdale who falls for a circus horse. The Clydesdale commercials tend to score highly in USA Today's annual poll of consumer reactions to Super Bowl ads.
The Clydesdale spots tend to pull on the heart strings, said Bob Horowitz, creator and producer of the annual show "Super Bowl's Greatest Commercials." But humorous spots tend to generate more buzz.
"Funny equals water cooler," Horowitz said.
Veteran beverage industry consultant Tom Pirko supported the decision to leave the Clydesdales on the sidelines, calling their image "stale" and "nostalgic." Anheuser-Busch, which saw its beer shipments fall 2.1 percent in the U.S. last year, needs something new to inject life into the Budweiser brand, he said. Yet, the Clydesdale are a recognizable and interesting corporate trademark, so the horses still have advertising value for the brewer.
"They're in a bit of a bind," said Pirko, president of Bevmark.
Antil, of the University of Delaware, said he figured the brewer would use the Clydesdales in Super Bowl commercials if only to blunt any sense that Budweiser had changed since Anheuser-Busch was bought by Belgian-Brazilian conglomerate InBev in late 2008. "If they want confusion about whether the company is un-American, then don't put the Clydesdales in the Super Bowl," Antil said.
The lack of Clydesdales also surprised Derek Rucker, marketing professor at Northwestern University's Kellogg School of Management, who watches the big game's commercials with his students and closely critiques the spots.
"Is this a move to change who the brand is?" Rucker said. "And what about customers who are used to seeing the Clydesdales?"
The answer will come the Monday morning after the big game.