In late summer 1994, the new Budweiser brand director Mike Brooks sent a memo to two top executives at D’Arcy Advertising, Jim Palumbo and Mark Choate, telling them that Anheuser-Busch wanted a new campaign for Bud, one that would “contemporize” the brand and make it more appealing to the twenty-one-to thirty-year-old segment.
He asked them to give the assignment out to creative teams in all D’Arcy’s offices–New York, Detroit, and Los Angeles, in addition to St. Louis–and present their best work within a month. Thirty days later, Choate, Palumbo, and a handful of D’Arcy creative types presented Brooks with dozens of campaign ideas in a session that lasted several hours. Brooks was struck by one concept in particular from a young creative team in St. Louis, Dave Swaine and Michael Smith. Presented on an “art card,” a twelve-by-sixteen-inch piece of white foam board, it was a four-panel drawing of frogs sitting on lily pads with a Budweiser sign in the background. The card was augmented by a thirty-second cassette recording of frogs croaking, “Bud . . . bud . . . weis . . . bud . . . weis . . . bud . . . weis . . . bud . . . weis . . . er.”
It was beautifully simple and so totally off-the-wall that Brooks couldn’t help laughing at the absurdity. Of all the things he was shown, “Frogs” stood out.
The next day, Brooks, Choate, and Palumbo presented “Frogs” and two or three other concepts to Brook’s boss, Bob Lachky, the senior director of Budweiser brands, Lachky’s boss, August Busch IV, and Patrick Stokes the president of the brewing division. The four executives would have been hard pressed at that moment to say exactly why they thought “Frogs” would help sell Budweiser to twenty-five-year-olds. It was certainly a unique concept; they’d never seen anything like it before. It wasn’t anyone’s father’s idea of a Budweiser commercial. There would be no Dalmatians riding on red beer wagons, no Clydesdales galloping slo-mo through the snow, no blue-collar worker tossing back a cold one at the end of a long day, no jiggling Bud Girls on the beach, no beer really, no classic “pour shot” with a punchy voiceover tagline talking about taste or quality or tradition, none of the things that August Busch III liked in a Bud commercial. But they all sensed that if the concept were properly executed, then people would not only remember it, they’d likely never forget it.
It was decided that Brooks should make the pitch to August III at the annual weeklong
planning meeting in September, when every brand director presented his advertising and marketing plans for the upcoming year. The meeting was held in the big conference room at the Soccer Park, where more than 40 executives, including the entire strategy committee and the creative team from D’Arcy, sat in a U-shaped arrangement of tables, with the presenter in the middle facing August III, who was sitting at the center of the head table.
About halfway through his four-hour presentation, Brooks introduced “Frogs” as “an idea for a thirty-second commercial, for your approval.” He held the art card with the drawing of the frogs across his chest and pushed the start button on the cassette player next to him.
When the tape ended, all eyes turned to August III, who did not react. He stared at the art card, and then glanced up at Brooks, then back at the card. He didn’t smile. Neither did Stokes or Lachky or the Fourth or any member of the strategy committee. They all just sat there, stone silent.
Finally, August said, “I don’t get it, Brooks.”
“Sir, I’d like to play the tape again,” Brooks replied.
“You do that.”
Still holding the art card across his chest, Brooks rewound the tape and pressed the start button again, all the while thinking, “I’m in big trouble here; this was my recommendation.” Halfway through the replay, however, a smile flickered across August’s face; by the end, he was laughing, and so was everyone else in the room, out of relief if nothing else.
“What’s the message of that, Brooks?” August asked.
“Sir, the message is that Budweiser is so attractive that even frogs are drawn to it.”
“That’s fantastic. What’s it gonna cost?”
“Two point three million, sir.”
“Two point three million,” Brooks repeated, launching into a detailed description of all the animatronics, robotics, and hydraulics that would be required to bring the amphibians to life.
August listened intently and jotted notes. Brooks explained that the cost also included $1.2 million for the first airing of the commercial.
“Where’s it going to run?” August asked.
“In position 1-A during the Super Bowl,” Brooks said. “That’s the first thirty-second
commercial break after the first possession in the first quarter. It will be the first commercial anyone sees.”
“You believe in this?” August asked.
“Yes, sir, I do.”
“You willing to stake your job on it?”
August III broke into a broad smile and said, “Well, then go get ’em, Brooksie.”
On January 29, 1995, quarterback Steve Young threw a record six touchdown passes to lead his San Francisco 49ers to a 49–26 victory over the San Diego Chargers in Super Bowl XXIX. But the real winning team that day may have been the Budweiser Frogs, who outscored even the legendary Spuds MacKenzie in USA Today’s weekly Ad Track poll, which measured the popularity and effectiveness of ad campaigns. Ad Track rated “Frogs” No. 1 for three months running, with more than 50 percent of poll respondents saying they recalled the commercial and liked it “a lot.” Advertising Age reported that the frogs had tripled the awareness of Budweiser among the target group of twenty-one- to thirty-year-olds. The advertising industry honored the agency that produced the commercial, DDB Needham of Chicago, with a handful of Clio Awards (the ad industry’s version of the Oscars) as well as the Silver Lion award at the Cannes International Festival of Creativity.
“Our ads were on the lips of virtually every adult contemporary consumer,” said a former A-B sales executive. “Which made it a lot easier when our sales guys walked into Krogers, or Ralphs or Albertsons. They’d bring a VCR along on the call and pop in a tape and play the commercials, and the retail people thought they were hysterical. The retailers would show the commercials at their senior management meetings. The momentum behind our brands was huge.”
It wasn’t only Budweiser. In December 1994, Bud Light finally surpassed Miller Lite in sales, giving A-B the No. 1 and No. 2 selling beers in the world.
From the book Bitter Brew: The Rise and Fall of Anheuser-Busch and America’s Kings of Beer by William Knoedelseder. Copyright © 2012 by William Knoedelseder. Reprinted courtesy of HarperBusiness, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.
William Knoedelseder spent twelve years as a reporter at the Los Angeles Times, where his groundbreaking coverage of the recording industry for the newspaper’s financial section resulted in the critically acclaimed book Stiffed: The True Story of MCA, the Music Business, and the Mafia. Knoedelseder has also been a television news executive, creating, managing, and producing news programs for Knight Ridder, Buena Vista TV, Fox Television, and USA. At the USA network, he was vice president of news. His most recent book, I’m Dying Up Here, has been optioned for film by Jim Carrey. He lives in Woodland Hills, California.