This story originally appeared on The Big Lead in January of 2014. Today marks the 30th anniversary of the legendary commercial during the Super Bowl on January 22, 1989.
“We’ve turned bottles into people before, let’s turn them into football players.” That concept, and a desire to dominate the advertising conversation during the most watched television event in the United States, led to one of the biggest commercial pushes in Super Bowl history.
August Busch III, then President of Anheuser-Busch, wanted to own the Super Bowl in 1989, and wanted everyone talking about Budweiser and Bud Light on Monday. If you’re 35 years old or older, you probably remember those spots and the resulting football puns, from the Freezer (patterned after William “The Refrigerator” Perry) to Beer Bryant (the houndstooth hat-wearing head coach). We had seen other memorable Super Bowl commercials to that point (Ridley Scott’s Apple commercial in 1984 showed how to launch a product with one iconic spot). What we had not previously seen was the use of multiple commercials to tell a story over several different spots, to “flood the zone” and create conversation.
Grant Pace (writer) and Martin Buchanan (art direction) were the two youngest members of the four-man creative team at D’Arcy Masius Benton & Bowles who were charged with putting that vision into life, where the idea was to create a football game using beer bottles played out over all four quarters. This idea, according to Buchanan, was already developed in-house on a different project: Longnecks to Go. The Longnecks to Go commercials employed the concept of bottles as people, with commuters getting into a subway represented by a bottle carrier.
“They said we’ve turned bottles into people before, let’s turn them into football players. That’s a great way to have the brand star in a similar activity to the Super Bowl. Do our own Super Bowl,” said Buchanan. The emphasis on making the longneck bottle the hot new star of the show was no accident. Longnecks may be an interwoven part of the beer industry today as the standard bottle type, but until before that campaign, longnecks were more commonly a bar thing, and Bud bottles sold in grocery stores were of the shorter, fatter variety. “The kicker, Budski, was shaped like that ugly bottle, which has pretty much been taken off the shelves,” Buchanan noted.
The idea to use the “bottles as people” concept was already in place, but the execution of going to a football game and turning them into players would take a lot more work than re-arranging the bottles to get into a fictional subway. Buchanan and Pace were brought in to work on the project because of its enormity.
They brainstormed as many football ideas and clichés and inside jokes as they could. Buchanan came up with the tear-away label bit after the kickoff. Pace had the idea to include the famous rainbow wig guy as a beer bottle in the stands, holding a “Bud 3:16” sign. Buchanan, from Alabama and an SEC fan, was particularly proud of the inclusion of a Bear Bryant-type character. Many other ideas, such as the mocking of a telestrator, which was just starting to be widely used, were incorporated. The idea was to use basic football actions, such as a kickoff, or an interception, and then come up with the gags off of that.
The original Bud Bowl was also out in front on the fourth down debate. Budweiser’s coach brought in the Freezer with one play left from the five yard line, at the end of the first half. “If he had been coaching an import, it may have been different, but he was coaching the king of beers,” quipped Pace.
Bouncing those football ideas and coming up with the outline of how the game would play out may have been fun; the execution was far from it. If hipsters aren’t sure what to make of the Bud Bowl now, they can be blamed for being integral in its origins: the commercials were put together using stop-motion animation by Broadcast Arts in New York, a company that also worked on “Pee Wee’s Playhouse.”
“It was like watching paint dry, you really couldn’t be in the room when they were doing the animation. Freaky long-haired t-shirt wearing skinny guys with Doc Martens on would go into the dark studio, which was the Bud Bowl stadium that they built, and hang out on a 1×6 piece of board over the field, and move every piece individually by hand, until the whole thing played out, then take a picture,” Buchanan said, “you had to move every piece again and take another picture. Each picture represented 1/24th of a second of the Bud Bowl.”
Both Pace and Buchanan found the process terribly boring, and would use the experience to leapfrog into other positions with other firms as a result of their work on the Bud Bowl. “I didn’t want to do another one. Once you’ve done one Bud Bowl, why do eleven?” said Buchanan.
It was that vision, though, to do several Bud Bowls that changed the first ending. The original ending had what Pace described as a “St. Elsewhere moment”, where a man removes two of the “players” from the refrigerator as the game is about to end.
“To Mr. [August] Busch’s credit, we never thought they would do this again, to us this was crazy. You do it one time and then you move on,” said Pace. He saw that original ending and said “well, that’s interesting, but what do you do next year then, if this game didn’t really happen?”
The ending to Bud Bowl I would have also been different–and one that still satisfied Mr. Busch’s desire to continue the series–if the Super Bowl had been broadcast by another network other than NBC in 1989. In 1968, NBC was the network with rights to the American Football League, and infamously switched from the ending of an exciting Raiders-Jets game to air the movie “Heidi.”
The Bud Bowl was going to end with a similar scenario. The kick goes up. Then a little girl in the Swiss Alps appears on the television. That version made it all the way to NBC, which had to approve the commercials that would air on its network. According to Pace, Michael Weisman, the executive producer for NBC, walked into the room and said, “over my dead [expletive] body you’re going to do a Heidi joke.”
That change by NBC did not require a complete overhaul, only 10 seconds more of commercial footage from the “long haired freaky looking people.”
Bud Bowl would go on for seven more times, or almost five years beyond when all the kitschy bad football jokes were used up. We would get Bud Dry as the hotshot #1 overall pick, and appearances by Chris Berman, Marv Albert, and Joe Namath (along with Budway Joe).
In the end, Budski–the short, squat bottle–got his moment of glory, before going the way of the bare-footed kicker. August Busch got his Super Bowl.