Anheuser-Busch dominated the beer industry and had plenty of rock clout sponsoring concert tours in the '80s, but its Michelob brand was kind of like the clingy friend no one wanted around. Youthful, white-collar drinkers were ditching the draught for trendier imports and Michelob tried everything to woo them back. Slogans like "The holidays were made for Michelob," the "Weekends were made for Michelob" and "Where you're going, it's Michelob" weren't getting the brew invited to any parties. What Michelob needed was some cool friends. So, like any self-respecting nerd in the '80s, it hired some.
The beer company tapped a range of rock performers for "The Night Belongs to Michelob," a collection of atmospheric ads featuring fashionable yuppies having a good time in the big city. Joe Pytka and Alien director Ridley Scott helmed the one-minute glimpses into the night life, while Genesis, Eric Clapton, Roger Daltrey, Steve Winwood, even Frank Sinatra, offered night-themed hits, often in exchange for tour sponsorship. The campaign was so popular, it boosted Michelob sales for the first time in six years and spawned a weekly music show.
Michelob chose Eric Clapton as the literal poster-boy for the campaign. Liquor distributors throughout the country received promotional posters of Clapton performing in a bar under the banner "Michelob Presents Eric Clapton." The commercial featured a re-recorded version of "After Midnight," the J.J. Cale-penned hit he first covered in 1972. Much like the beer giant, the rock legend needed something to shake his career out of stasis. Alcohol turned out to be the solution... and the problem.
"I was a practicing alcoholic when I made that commercial," Clapton told Rolling Stone in 1988. "I was actually in treatment in Minnesota when that came on the TV. I was in a room full of recovering alcoholics, myself being one of them, and everybody went, 'Is that you?' I said, 'Yep.' What was I going to say? It was me when I was drinking."
Suddenly, Michelob's anchor threatened to become an albatross. Beer companies were already taking heat for contributing to underage drinking by sponsoring concert tours and creating slick ad campaigns like this one. Adding an adding an alcoholic rocker to the mix didn't help. But Clapton's presence drew the most ire from fellow musicians. Neil Young skewered the commercial with a shot-by-shot recreation in his video for the anti-commercialism anthem "This Note's For You," which also lampooned Michael Jackson's Pepsi spot that saw the King of Pop's hair catch fire. Tom Petty asked, "How is someone supposed to take your next work seriously when your last one was a beer commercial?" Pretty seriously as it turns out: Clapton's next work was the Grammy-winning box set Crossroads. (The set included the note "Special thanks to Michelob Beer.")
The campaign found its biggest fan in Stanley Kubrick, the famous filmmaker behind classics like 2001: A Space Odyssey, A Clockwork Orange, and The Shining. He told Rolling Stone: "The editing, the photography, was some of the most brilliant work I've ever seen. Forget what they're doing - selling beer - and it's visual poetry. Incredible eight-frame cuts. And you realize that in thirty seconds they've created an impression of something rather complex. If you could ever tell a story, something with some content, using that kind of visual poetry, you could handle vastly more complex and subtle material."
"Tonight, Tonight, Tonight"
The ads also worked their magic on the charts. One of the campaign's earliest commercials shows Genesis performing in a smoky bar while various patrons pursue their conquests. As Phil Collins repeats the refrain "Tonight, Tonight, Tonight," a woman zeroes in on a man drinking a Michelob in the crowd; another man grabs his date in one hand and clutches a beer in the other. Collins can't sing much else or the true meaning of the song would dampen the vibe (it's about a drug dealer). Sure, a bottle of beer might pair well with a crippling addiction, but it probably wouldn't make for a good time.
According to Genesis keyboardist Tony Banks, the song probably wouldn't have been chosen as a single if not for the ad, and the exposure helped propel it to #2 on the charts. Michelob also sponsored the band's 1987 Invisible Touch tour. Shortly after, Phil Collins revived "In The Air Tonight" for another installment in the campaign.
"Don't You Know What The Night Can Do?"
No one seemed to mind that Genesis made a sweetheart deal with Michelob, but the same can't be said for Steve Winwood. The former Traffic frontman offered a remix of his 1982 flop "Talking Back To The Night" for another spot, in which a film editor becomes infatuated with a beautiful woman from his footage. The commercial helped boost the single, featured on his Chronicles compilation, to #7 on the Adult Contemporary chart. With a new album about to be released, Winwood returned for another round, this time with a song no one had heard yet.
Roll With It's "Don't You Know What The Night Can Do?" debuted in a commercial before the single even hit the airwaves. "It looked like I had written a beer jingle!" he recalled in a 1990 biography.
That's just what viewers thought. He endured accusations of selling out, but that didn't stop him from spending his nights with Michelob. The company sponsored his tour, and "Don't You Know What The Night Can Do?" became a Top 10 hit.
"Everybody Have Fun Tonight"
Meanwhile, Wang Chung squeezed a lot of life out of "To Live and Die In LA." It was written for a 1985 crime drama, released as a single, and – with lyrics about the heat and the dark of the night – landed in a Michelob commercial.
Luckily for the beer company, the New Wave duo's biggest hit was released during the campaign and fit neatly into the night-themed concept. "Everybody Have Fun Tonight" peaked at #2 on the Hot 100 and was the soundtrack to Michelob drinkers taking in a baseball game.
"The Way You Look Tonight"
It might seem strange that in the midst of everyone Wang Chunging, Frank Sinatra showed up singing a 50-year-old standard from a Fred Astaire musical. But the night belonged to Sinatra long before it belonged to Michelob. Nancy Sinatra recalled, "A lot of media watchers questioned the use of my father's voice because Michelob was positioned as a young person's drink and had previously featured all young rock 'n rollers. Michelob, however, felt that the campaign would get an added boost by featuring someone with timeless, upscale appeal."
An Anheuser-Busch marketing manager added, in cringe-worthy corporate speak, "We're trying to show the length and breadth of 'the night.'" That and the brewing giant wanted its name attached to The Ultimate Event, a national tour featuring Sinatra, Liza Minnelli and Sammy Davis Jr. Sinatra was also a longtime collaborator with the company's flagship brand, Budweiser. The label sponsored several of his TV specials and he bought a lucrative distributorship in 1967.
Sunday Night Belongs To Michelob
By 1988, Anheuser-Busch wanted a bigger piece of rock television. "The Night Belongs To Michelob" expanded into a full-length late-night TV show on NBC. Michelob Presents Sunday Night tapped into the hip SNL crowd by enlisting showrunner Lorne Michaels as its executive producer and inviting a hot lineup of musical guests. The show, hosted by Squeeze pianist Jools Holland and sax player David Sanborn, featured James Taylor, Leonard Cohen, Lou Reed, Joe Cocker, Donald Fagen, Mark Knopfler, Debbie Harry, and Michelob mainstay Eric Clapton. Meanwhile, Michelob released a totally '80s gold cassette of "Night Hits" with songs from the commercials, including Roger Daltrey's "Move Better In The Night," and other night-inspired tunes.
The brand's cool cred ran out with the dawn of a new decade. "Sunday Night" was cancelled after two seasons and Michelob moved on to other, less successful campaigns. But for a few short years in the '80s, rock belonged to Michelob.
July 19, 2017