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'Party Animal' Spuds Changes His Line--for Holidays at Least : Change Prompted by Claim That Beer Ads Influence Children

December 15, 1987|STEVE WEINSTEIN

On the heels of fierce criticism that he encourages children to drink beer, Spuds MacKenzie, Anheuser-Busch's "original party animal," has changed his image--at least for the holidays.

Last month, Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) excoriated Anheuser-Busch for its Spuds MacKenzie promotional campaign, which, he insisted, lures young people to alcohol.

Two weeks later, the company aired a new Bud Light commercial starring the aloof English bull terrier with one black eye.

Spuds (who actually is played by a female dog) is customarily seen transforming lifeless gatherings into wild and raucous blowouts. But the new spot has him decked out in a tuxedo and tails, gracefully tinkling the keys on a baby grand while a refined cocktail-party crowd quietly marvels at his ability to remain in control.

Dressed in sequined formal frocks, the Spudettes --the three leggy young women who seductively whoop it up with Spuds in his regular commercials--then gather around the soberly elegant dog at the piano and pronounce: "Spuds knows it's cool to live by one simple rule: Know when to say when."

This unorthodox television spot is the latest installment in Anheuser Busch's 3-year-old campaign to encourage holiday partygoers to use moderation when consuming alcohol. It first aired during NFL football games on Thanksgiving Day and will continue running through New Year's Day.

In the past, the company has employed professional sports stars such as baseball veteran Steve Garvey, Miami Dolphins quarterback Dan Marino and New York Knicks center Patrick Ewing to convey the moderation message. But this year, the corporation decided its own famous spokesdog would be perfect for its holiday campaign.

"We know that humor is one of the most effective communications tools at our disposal, and we feel that the use of Spuds in this context will draw maximum attention to this very important message," said John Roarty, executive vice president of Anheuser-Busch. "Secondly, a key element in the overall popularity and positioning of the character is a personality which is simultaneously the 'life of the party,' while remaining cool, sophisticated and always in control."

A spokesman for Bud Light insisted that the decision to use Spuds in its campaign for holiday sobriety was made months ago and had nothing to do with Thurmond's vehement criticism of Bud Light's "party animal" last month.

But outrage from several school and parent organizations across the country--which has led to the banning of Spuds T-shirts in some schools--had prompted Roarty to issue an official statement last September that defended the Bud Light campaign as targeting only adults. He said the company supported all actions designed to prohibit the use of Spuds merchandise by persons under the minimum drinking age.

Despite these disclaimers, Thurmond accused Anheuser-Busch of deliberately aiming its Spuds promotions at children. He objected especially to the company's promotion of Bud Light through assorted Spuds paraphernalia including a stuffed-toy version of Spuds that, he claimed, appeals most of all to young people.

"The stuffed animals, children's toys and T-shirts small enough to fit 12-year-olds," Thurmond said, "indicate the real purpose of the campaign."

Thurmond is aware of the new Spuds commercial, a spokeswoman in his office said, but one 30-second spot is not about to temper the senator's criticism.

"The point is they are not being responsible," the spokeswoman said. "The stuffed toys that say Bud Light are going to 8-year-olds. The senator's goal is to get them to show more responsibility in their ad campaign, and I don't think one commercial constitutes a major shift in their marketing attitude."

Anheuser-Busch said that Bud Light had authorized approximately 35 different manufacturers to produce Spuds promotional merchandise, including T-shirts, satin jackets, calendars, caps, beer mugs, key chains, posters, playing cards and stuffed toys. T-shirts featuring pictures of the Bud Light dog, Roarty said, are manufactured only in adult sizes, and none of the items are supposed to be sold in retail outlets for children.

He further claimed that it is mostly illegal, unsanctioned Spuds products that are falling into the hands of underage people. Roarty said the company is currently taking legal action to stop the production and distribution of the "pirate" Spuds merchandise.

Though William Stolberg, a spokesman for Bud Light, conceded that children do identify affectionately with the unusual-looking dog, he said there have been studies that indicate that beer advertising does not recruit new beer drinkers. The primary cause of underage drinking is peer pressure, he said, not a Spuds MacKenzie T-shirt.

"We do not intend nor do we believe that Spuds can influence underage people to drink," Stolberg said.

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