AMSTEL'S NEW PERSONALITY IGNORES ITS IMPORT IMPORTANCE

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There's an old joke, something about driving in the wrong direction but making very good time. And it's worth discussing further, but first let's visit an extremely charming commercial from a clever campaign by Warwick Baker & Fiore, New York, for Heineken USA's Amstel Light.

"So there's 365 days in a year, 250 of which you're working for the rent," begins the spot, with a funky shot of calendar pages flying off into eternity. "About 98 whole days of sleeping. Another six doing things you don't want for someone else who doesn't appreciate it. One day brushing your teeth. Two days combing your hair. Three entire days standing in elevators. And four days waiting in line at the DMV, which, believe it or not, leaves only one measly day to sit back and have a beer. So make it a great tasting one. And since there's not much time left to work out, make it a light.

"Amstel Light. A light beer for a heavy world."

The voice-over is reminiscent of the MasterCard campaign: arch and sort of cheerfully sardonic. Likewise the graphic presentation, with clever, stylized images of an alarm-clock factory, an elevator (as viewed through a security camera) and a grainy tracking shot of the endless line at DMV, where finally an indifferent bureaucrat yanks a cord to take a driver's license photo, rendering her image momentarily into an X-ray and capturing the startled subject in classic photo-dorkdom.

Yes, everything about the spot is breezy and charming, youthful and cool. It targets Xers without annoying boomers. The light beer/heavy world theme contemporizes the "Miller Time"-type appeal to the working stiff. And it begins to fashion a likable brand personality for the hitherto dour Amstel.

In short, the campaign does virtually everything you'd ever want from beer advertising-because beer is essentially a parity category, and brand personality often enough is not a component so much as the very essence of the brand. Yet this is not great advertising.

It is cool, charming, seriously flawed advertising, which bizarrely squanders bona fide, unique brand attributes such as most marketers in a similar competitive position would sell their mothers' kidneys to own. While personality often, by default, becomes the brand essence, it is of only secondary importance when something more specific and valuable defines the product in the consumer's mind.

Import flavor, for instance.

Amstel has for years prospered by splitting the difference between full-bodied beer and light-beer flavor disappointment. It is still a compromise, but-because its flavor resembles the big European imports-less of a flavor compromise than domestics. Amstel may unmistakably not be Heineken, but it also is unmistakably not Bud Light-which not only bears mentioning, it bears building your message around.

Charm or no charm, this new brand personality being infused into Amstel is strictly external, contrived, cosmetic, generically suited to most any light beer on the market. But it insufficiently serves Amstel, which has intrinsic, organic meaning demanding to be fleshed out.

That's why the campaign brings to mind that driver we mentioned earlier. He's happily tooling up I-95 north at 70 mph, with the wind in his hair, but he'd be better off on I-80 doing 20 mph in stop-and-go traffic, because where he needs to get to is Chicago.

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