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Sam Adams unlikely to be hurt by scandal

By Published on .

In an era of lewd humor and bored consumers, Boston Beer Co. may prove American marketers who stumble between audacious and awful are not so clumsy.

The brewer's involvement in the three year old "Sex for Sam" radio promotion that rewarded people for having sex in public-including one couple arrested for doing so near worshippers in St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City-led to the cancellation of a syndicated show, a federal investigation and public outrage. But with an apology from the brewer's chairman, the hubbub appears to be dying down. It could even prove a boon for the marketer of the high-end Samuel Adams Boston Lager, which must win over 20-something men being wooed by better-endowed competitors.

"The people who most identify Sam Adams with what happened are not only not outraged, but think it's kind of cool," said Robert Thompson, a professor of popular culture at Syracuse University. "A lot of people doing most of the complaining are Chardonnay drinkers."

seeking the edge

Boston Beer commands only a mere 0.04% of the U.S. beer market, and its enthusiasts are not the serial partyers who favor light beers, though the company recently launched Sam Adams Light.

A Boston Beer spokeswoman said her company has to be on the cutting edge with younger drinkers. The miniscule ad budget is no help. Boston Beer Co. spent $7.7 million on measured media in the first half of this year, compared to 10 times that for category leaders, according to Taylor Nelson Sofres' CMR.

"You've got to fish where the fish are and buy programming that attracts those listeners," she said. In an effort to tap into that free-spending and growing population of people turning 21, the company wants to make Sam Adams less an elite brew and more of a brewski for the common man-a strategy that worked for Heineken. Chairman Jim Koch cavorted and guffawed for the "Sex for Sam" promotion on the Aug. 15 "Opie and Anthony" show, which aired on WNEW-FM, New York, one of Viacom's Infinity Broadcasting Corp. stations. Mr. Koch said he didn't want to miss the opportunity to reach 5 million consumers, though he acknowledged the concept probably wasn't the best way to do it.

The spokeswoman said Boston Beer wasn't aware of the contest's exact premise until the first round winners arrived in Boston-a year after the contest had started. Mr. Koch did not know this latest round would entail a church, the spokeswoman said.

Boston Beer's promotions are handled in house. Its ad agency is Big Chair Creative Productions, N.Y.

Jim Twitchell, advertising professor at the University of Illinois, said consumers are more forgiving of advertising for "sin products" than they are for other goods. "You fool around with Pampers and you pay the price, but you fool around with beer, and nobody cares," he said.

The flap didn't affect the company's stock price, which last week hovered around $14, in the middle of a 52-week range of $9.80 to $18.16.

Outrage over "Sex for Sam" took almost three years to come to the fore, possibly because people who listen to "Opie & Anthony" aren't offended, and people who are offended don't listen. It was the Catholic element that ended the contest's run.

"It was a strange juxtaposition of obscenity and blasphemy," said Bill Donohue, president of the Catholic League for Religious and Civil Rights, who accepted Mr. Koch's telephoned apology.

Said Randy Stone, CEO of Marketing Management Analytics, a firm that measures ad effectiveness by sales: "With so many examples of great creative marketing out there, if you really have to resort to something like this, it does question how shallow the depths of one's creativity are."

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