Budweiser and the Selling of America – The New Yorker

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I happen to have bought an eighteen-pack of Budweiser cans on the day before Anheuser-Busch announced a temporary renaming of its flagship beer. From summer until the election in November, the King of Beers will be called—and labelled—“America.” By way of explanation, an executive declared that, with the upcoming Centennial Copa America, and the Summer Olympics, and, of course, the Presidential campaign, “we are embarking on what should be the most patriotic summer that this generation has ever seen.”

Interesting word choice, “embarking.” I guess it will, in its way, be a bit of a trip. As for “patriotic,” it’s true that I’m thinking quite a lot about the country these days, and feeling the kind of love for it that can only come through mortal fear and a touch of embarrassment. “Generation” means less and less the more we use it; it’s like “historic” that way. (There were, after all, both an election and an Olympics just four summers ago, and four summers before that.) The new beer can looks like a sleek, jingoistic bullet, or like a metallic Old Glory, on steroids, its eyebrows plucked into a mishmash of modern fonts, made up to star in an over-loud summer blockbuster. Near the top, the initials “US” sit upon a silver crest that calls to mind the portrait on the obverse of a dollar bill. Beneath the “America” in question—dark blue in tight cursive loops—are the words “E Pluribus Unum” in gleaming capitals, looking more like a command than a description. Around the can, about a third of the way down, runs a red ribbon. “Indivisible Since 1776,” it says, ever so effectively collapsing the distance between Pledge and punch line.

The new “America” beer can displays a nationalistic commercialism that shouldn’t be unfamiliar to any American. Photograph Courtesy Anheuser-Busch

The America evoked by the can is an America that I recognize—one that exists only in advertisements. You find it in commercials for pickup trucks and lawnmowers, jeans and mass-produced beer. What happens here, in this warmly lit, perfectly cast version of the States, is this: a towheaded boy with angles for ribs runs down to the edge of a dock, takes flight, and folds himself into a ball before he breaks the glinting surface of a lake. Or this: a dad in sky-blue Wranglers and a T-shirt smiles through a toss or two of a football, then grabs his son lovingly by the arms and swings him in tilting circles; when he’s done, maybe he gives the kid a noogie. Or this abstract arrangement unfurls: a guy in a cowboy hat jumps out of the high-set bed of a burly truck and directly onto the back of a horse. Everybody’s on a suburban lawn, or passing through the desert, or traipsing through a field of wheat, or somewhere on a safe-looking acre or so of woods. (Safety is much of what holds this shot-on-location country together.) In any case, the city almost never figures in. Somebody’s singing, “This is ouuurrrr country,” and it’s unclear—but, in another way, stupidly apparent—to whom the first-person plural is supposed to refer, and what, exactly, they can be said to possess. The whole thing’s narrated by a man with a carburetor for a voice.

Of course, even before America was America, its people understood it as an advertisement for itself. “The eyes of all people are upon us,” John Winthrop told his shipmates, not only to help them imagine the embarrassment—to themselves, to their God—that would follow if they failed but also to stoke their pride by suggesting the possibility of influence, of fame. Today the difference (you might call it an innovation) is that this newer imaginative product sells us—some of us—to ourselves, not to the rest of the world, and is maybe, in this way, evidence of an increasing confusion over our national identity.

There is something of this, the desire for a convincing new brand, in the rise of Donald Trump, who, for many years now, has been more marketer than builder. What is his big, beautiful wall, paid for by somebody else, but the promise of a Sponsored Continent? The consumer’s America—lyrically normal, always aglow, Springsteen sans despair—has never been an actual place, but it is precisely the America whose greatness Trump’s supporters want so badly to restore. So busy renovating a spectral property, they’ve settled for symbols, gestures, attitudes, and little more. But, at least for now, I don’t want to pick on the Trumpists: I feel it, too. Every time somebody mentions the beach or a cookout, or, sure, offers me a Budweiser, something in me sort of stirs.

The cans in that ever-lightening case in my own fridge have their own pre-“America” branding. They’re solid red, a bit too similar to Coke, at first glance, and they bear the logo of the New York Yankees. Budweiser’s the “official beer” of Major League Baseball, of which fact another, smaller logo makes sure I am aware. It’s appropriate, in a way: I’m a fan of the Yankees, much in the way that it is possible, and easy, to be a fan of Anheuser-Busch’s boardroom-concocted nation-state. I check in on them sometimes, and either smile or shake my head.

Budweiser and the Selling of America – The New Yorker

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