How Old Milwaukee Gamed the Super Bowl

For most national brands, buying a TV ad during the Super Bowl is the antithesis of cheap, narrowly targeted advertising. Not so for Old Milwaukee.

On Sunday night, like many of its deeper-pocketed rival beer brands, Old Milwaukee rolled out a new TV commercial. The ad featured a celebrity endorsement of sorts from the comedian Will Ferrell. But rather than targeting the mass national audience that tuned in by the tens of millions to NBC stations and affiliates across the country, the Old Milwaukee spot aired in front of a much smaller subgroup—specifically, the thousands of people watching the Super Bowl in the country’s second-smallest TV market, North Platte, Neb.

The 30-second commercial, against a stirring soundtrack, features a single shot of Ferrell in a pair of shorts, striding through a wheat field toward the camera. He catches a can of Old Milwaukee that is tossed to him; just as he opens it, the commercial ends abruptly, mid-pitch.

Unconventional? Sure. But as a bit of marketing jujitsu, pure brilliance.

The ad aired during the Super Bowl on KNOP-2, the NBC affiliate in North Platte, and nowhere else. North Platte (which Deadspin points out is the hometown of Patriots running back Danny Woodhead) isn’t exactly a major media market. Nielsen estimates that during the 2011-2012 TV season, North Platte consisted of 15,180 TV homes. That’s a tiny fraction of the overall potential beer drinkers who watched the Super Bowl. On Sunday night, 111.3 million people tuned in to the game, according to Nielsen, making it the most-watched telecast in TV history.

Yet despite its tiny TV audience, the Old Milwaukee ad managed to outperform some of the nationally broadcast Super Bowl commercials in an increasingly important metric of Super Bowl advertising bragging rights: chatter on social-media networks. According to a study by the Boston-based advertising agency Mullen, Ferrell’s Old Milwaukee ad has so far generated 1,640 mentions on Twitter. That’s significantly more buzz than was created by some of the national Super Bowl spots, including ones for Cadillac (which generated 345 Tweets), Century 21 (520 Tweets), Lexus (922 Tweets), CareerBuilder (1,001 tweets), and Hulu (1,191 Tweets).

On Sunday night, a user named Daddymcc uploaded a low-quality copy of the Ferrell commercial onto YouTube, which was subsequently linked to by Old Milwaukee’s official Facebook page. The ad has since been viewed 155,000 times. By comparison, Budweiser’s slickly produced “Eternal Optimism” Super Bowl ad has been viewed on YouTube some 99,000 times.

Thus, Old Milwaukee managed to piggyback on the wave of Internet attention surrounding Super Bowl ads while ponying up a fraction of the traditional buy-in cost. Purchasing ad time during the Super Bowl is famously expensive. This year, according to NBC, the average 30-second national ad sold for roughly $3.5 million. In a market the size of North Platte, on the other hand, a 30-second TV ad maxes out at about $1,500, says Robert Passikoff, the founder and president of Brand Keys, a New-York brand-research consultancy.

In May 2010, billionaire Dean C. Metropoulos and his sons, Daren and Evan Metropoulos, bought Old Milwaukee as part of a broader $250 million purchase of Pabst Brewing, which also includes the beer brands Colt 45, Schlitz, Schaefer, and Stroh’s. Shortly after taking over the Pabst brands, the Metropoulos family vowed to steer clear of traditional celebrity brand endorsements. In 2010, Dean Metropoulos told Bloomberg Businessweek that “paying someone to say ‘Oh, I’m P. Diddy and I’m drinking Perrier-Jouët’—that’s not us. If we happen to know a celebrity and they happen to appreciate our brand, that’s different. But it needs to be organic. Authentic.”

In 2010, the Metropoulos family signed a deal with Will Ferrell’s company Funny or Die to create a series of sketches incorporating Pabst products. Martin Lesak, an agent with Creative Artists Agency, brokered the deal. Ferrell has since appeared in a number of low-budget Old Milwaukee ads that have appeared only in small, local TV markets, including spots that selectively aired in Davenport, Iowa, and Terre Haute, Ind.

In subsequent interviews, Pabst employees have spun Ferrell’s involvement in the local Old Milwaukee ads as a labor of love for which he receives no compensation. “Will approached Old Milwaukee because he’s a big fan of the beer and thought it would be fun to make the commercials, and we couldn’t be more excited that he did,” Bryan Crowley, Pabst Brewing’s chief marketing officer, told the Quad-City Times back in November.

“The Old Milwaukee campaign featuring Will Ferrell, as a whole, is about paying homage to great Old Milwaukee towns,” Daren and Evan Metropoulos said in a prepared media statement today. “North Platte, Neb., is just another one of those towns and what goes better with football than Old Milwaukee beer? The ads with Will Ferrell are extremely popular, which just shows you don’t need to spend millions of dollars to make a big impression.”

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