Guinness Export Co., for example, is running a print ad for Bass ale that depicts a bound man licking a dominatrix's boot. Dutch rival Amstel, marketed by Heineken USA, is warning consumers in a tongue-in-cheek campaign to avoid its beers because they come from hedonistic Amsterdam.
"It's a time for imports to regain a lot of interest that was lost" to specialty brews, said Tom Pirko, president of the consultancy BevMark.
As a result, imported beers are going from staid to strange with ads as they try to reach twentysomething drinkers.
When specialty brews appeared a few years ago, they managed to co-opt imports' biggest cachet: quality. Indeed, Jim Koch, CEO of Samuel Adams marketer Boston Beer Co., took potshots at the quality of imports.
The imports still want to tout quality, but some are using new and edgy ways to do so. And they seem to be having some success. Through the first six months of 1997, import sales hit 6.8 million cases, up 13.5% from the year-earlier period, the Beer Institute says.
Heineken USA was one of the first to respond with a quirky campaign in 1996 for its flagship brand, via Wells BDDP, New York. The print effort featured representations of the brand's red star logo and TV executions featured "real life" conversations, but virtually no product discussion.
Steve Davis, VP-marketing for Heineken USA, recently said the campaign was directed at young adults. "We needed to make ourselves hip and with it," he said (AA, June 30).
Young adults may be getting the message. Heineken-the largest import with 1996 sales of 36.7 million cases, according to Impact-sold 1.5 million cases in supermarkets during the first six months of 1997, up 7.3%, according to Information Resources Inc.
Heineken also took a new tack in May 1996 with Amstel. An estimated $20 million campaign that Wells created for Amstel, Amstel Light and Amstel 1870 featured the fictitious Americans for Disciplined Behavior, which urges consumers to avoid the beers from free-wheeling Amsterdam.
A Heineken USA spokesman said the ads have generated "talk value" and that the brewer is pleased with the sales results.
For British import Bass, its boot-licker ad is part of a $3.5 million print and outdoor campaign from Weiss, Whitten, Stagliano, New York.
Prior efforts celebrated the heritage of Bass by bringing in historical subjects in an understated ironic fashion. But Guinness wanted to spice things up. Bass risked getting lost in the mix because craft brews were being positioned as having a rich history. The Bass message "has been co-opted," said Nat Whitten, creative director for the agency. "Sam Adams has tried to create a heritage for itself."
The importer enlisted celebrity photographer David LaChappelle to shoot pictures of trendy, sometimes risque, activities to which Bass is a reliable alternative.
For example, the execution featuring the bound man kissing a dominatrix's boot bears the text: "In a world of strange tastes, there's always Bass ale."
Critics of the importers' new campaigns argue that the efforts trivialize the brands and don't build on their traditional equities.
But those criticisms don't faze a Bass wholesaler in the Northeast.
"It's really on the cutting edge," the wholesaler said, "and it's good for the