Big Beer's disturbing, deeply American vision of work and leisure

Plus: $14k of free beer, Hooters remembers 9/11, dog-friendly bar drama + more!

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It has recently come to my attention that the toy company Fisher-Price makes a “My Home Office” 8-piece playset that enables “Preschoolers ages 3 years and up [to] ‘work’ from home or anywhere.” It’s $26.99, a small (Fisher) price to pay to introduce your toddler to the isolating despair, alienating ritual, and creeping pointlessness of the professional life that likely awaits them.

A bajillion stories have been written over the past year and a half about how the coronavirus has changed the way Americans think about work. Having read a lot of those stories (not the whole bajillion, but more than I’d care to admit), I find myself encouraged that the tide might finally be starting to turn on this country’s poisonous neoliberal veneration of incessant, unrewarded labor. I imagine a future where we collectively come together as a country and agree to do less work we hate and instead focus our time and freedom on cool shit we love, all built upon progressive programs like universal basic income and universal healthcare funded by a tax code that redistributes this nation’s vast wealth instead of consolidating it.

It’s invigorating to remind myself that better things are possible. But then I hear that a toy company is pitching pandemic-induced remote work as the next big thing in preschool entertainment, and I remember that Americans (myself included) have a long, hard journey ahead if we’re ever going to disabuse ourselves of the notion that work is our highest purpose.

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The cultural dynamics and socio-politics shaping modern American work are not my area of expertise, and I don’t write much (not directly, at least) about the “scar across our collective soul,” which is how the late great anthropologist David Graeber, author of the essential book Bullshit Jobs, described the agony of lives spent performing unfulfilling, unnecessary labor to survive. But there are Fisher-Price playsets everywhere, if you know how to spot them. That includes modern beer promotion, which I very much do write about.

This brings us, more or less, to TreeWork.

Last week, Busch Light launched an experiential giveaway campaign that offers a few lucky winners the chance to live out a supposedly revolutionary fantasy: working just like always… but outside. TreeWork—a cute reference to WeWork, the real-estate company/con that gentrified and mainstreamed the concept of co-working in the U.S. before mostly imploding—is basically a voluntary labor camp for knowledge workers that Busch Light has set up somewhere in the wilderness of Colorado’s Moffat County. Contestants can enter to win a “really remote” workday at the camp from October 4th to 8th, where they’ll have access to WiFi, grills, firepits, and, obviously, Busch Light.

“We want your work to grow, blossom and branch out – and what better way than taking it outside?” asks the brand’s press release, citing research (commissioned by Lenovo, lol) that indicates a half hour outside can make workers feel better and increase their productivity by up to 45%. Maybe so. But you know what’s healthier, more conducive to growth and blossoming, and just more fun than working outside? Not working outside, or at all. Busch Light could just as easily offer winners a sweet camping trip. Why frame it around labor?

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This is not the first time Anheuser-Busch InBev has built a promo campaign around a work-related “dream job” that gets grimmer upon scrutiny. As I’ve written before, the world’s biggest beer company is an incredibly sophisticated marketing machine, and in recent years it has repeatedly returned to the “dream job” well to earn headlines and buzz for its U.S. beer brands.

Bud Light Seltzer ran a Potemkin talent search for a “Chief Meme Officer,” in which one lucky winner would get the “opportunity” to pump out social content for the brand for entry-level pay and no health insurance. Before that, Michelob Ultra and Devil’s Backbone ran similar (and similarly publicized) hiring hunts for “Chief Exploration Officer” and a “Chief Hiking Officer” respectively. Those campaigns, like Busch Light’s TreeWork, cheerfully elided the fact that 75% of American workers can’t work from home, and that ABI’s PAC had donated $131,000 to reelect lawmakers with dogshit environmental voting records during the 2019-2020 election cycle.

[Editor’s note: Fingers originally reported on those campaigns, and others like it. Please consider purchasing a subscription today to support independent drinks journalism.]

For what it’s worth, ABI is hardly the only firm running the “dream job” marketing playbook these days, or even the only macrobrewer making political donations at odds with its brands’ promotions. And the company’s apparent success with it—because rest assured, they would not continue the gambit if it wasn’t working—reveals nothing that those bajillion thinkpieces haven’t already gestured at. (Namely: that most jobs suck so much, people fantasize about simply having a job that sucks less, rather than, you know, not needing a job in the first place.) But considering beers like Busch Light were once positioned as affordable weeknight leisure for the country’s working class, TreeWork’s rustic vision of an everywhere, always-on, lager-lubricated American labor pool is all the more disturbing.

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As bleak as it may be, the campaign is also instructive. Busch Light’s TreeWork is centered around novel, slightly improved versions of white-collar labor for the same reason Fisher-Price makes colorful fake laptops to mimic remote work: under the prevailing paradigm, work is a moral good, or at least an inescapable reality. When you suffer from chronic pain that medical science cannot heal, doctors focus on managing your symptoms instead. When you ache from the seemingly inevitable collective scar of modern work, brands offer you a prettier place to answer your emails.

Better things are possible, including better work styles and jobs that actually do allow us to “grow and blossom and branch out.” But that will require a lasting sea change in the way we think about and organize around work. Taking your Zoom calls from the mountains of northwestern Colorado is just a temporary change of scenery.


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📬 Good post alert

I know it’s been a couple weeks since the 20th anniversary of 9/11, but to be honest with you I didn’t even know this video existed until about five days ago. But now, I have seen “Hooters Girls Remember 9/11”—originally posted on the 10th-anniversary of that sorrowful day, and since scrubbed from YouTube—and reader, there’s simply no going back.

What an artifact. If, for some reason, you’d like to spend more time in the void, you could scroll through the comments about this video on Hooters’ Facebook page. You could do that.


🏈 Coach who bought fans $14k worth of beer: “I was talking out my ass”

The highest-paid employee in 28 U.S. states is either a college basketball coach or a college football coach. Is that good? Generally speaking, dear reader, it is not. For example, in South Carolina, where Fingers HQ is located, Clemson’s head football coach is two years into a decade-long deal that makes him over $9 million a year. It’s a grotesque misallocation of resources in this cash-strapped state, made all the more insulting by the fact that the coach—whose real, actual name, like in life, is Dabo Swinney—has spoken out against the NCAA allowing college players to make money off their talents and prominence while still in school.1 Very cool!

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Bruce “Barny” Barnum does not make Dabo Swinney levels of loot, but he’s still pulling down around $200,000 a year from Oregon’s Portland State University. And lately, he’s been throwing that cash around. Barnum, apparently vexed by the attendance his PSU Vikings have been drawing this season, went on a local sports show a couple weekends back and made an open-ended promise: come to the game, mention the show to the bartender at Barny’s Beer Garden, and Barnum would buy your beer himself.

Per Joel Odom at OregonLive, when “[a]sked how many beers he would buy, Barnum told Canzano: ‘All of them.’” And… well, you can probably guess what happened next.

Barnum’s free beer gambit turned out enough drinkers to plow through 2064 beers at his namesake beer garden before PSU’s September 19th game, for which the coach ponied up $14,448. Then he tweeted the receipt, generating a bunch of adulating headlines and retweets from people dazzled by how #epic he was, or whatever.

Having covered the college athletics business a bit, I tend to be pretty cynical about this sort of stunt, and having covered the beer business a lot, I was fascinated by the fact that PSU fans clearly preferred Coors Light to Deschutes Fresh Squeezed IPA, even though cost was no object because Barnum was covering the beer bill. I hit up Fingers’ chief Oregon correspondent, Jason Notte, a one-time beer reporter who now writes for AdWeek, to get a local’s perspective. (He lives on a farm in Hillsboro, OR, a city west of Portland where PSU plays these days.) Some choice Notte quotes about PSU, Barnum, and beer from our DM conversation (emphasis mine):

  • “I am stunned by that Deschutes figure… [p]eople were offered Coors Light and Fresh Squeezed at the same price (free) and still chose Coors Light by a nearly 2-to-1 margin.”

  • “This is the football team that got kicked out of its downtown stadium by soccer because it had lousy attendance. It now plays out by my farm in an attempt to justify its existence.”

  • “The administration doesn't give a damn about making them better, students don't acknowledge their existence… so they come about 20 miles out of their way to play Big Sky Conference teams best known for their Pac-12 payday games at the beginning of every season.”

  • “Gordon Faber sports complex, where PSU plays… looks out onto a highway. It's situated among the high-tension power lines that run to an Intel manufacturing plant just down the road. It's surrounded by a supermarket, light industrial buildings, swamps, and unsold farmland.”

  • [Barnum] is likable. What remains of the PSU fan base genuinely loves him, even though his team is basically made of glass.”

For his part, Barnum seems pretty delighted by the whole situation, even though it cost him almost the same amount of money that a full-time worker making federal minimum wage would earn in an entire year. (Not to mention that it wasn’t exactly a box-office smash: PSU “still drew a crowd smaller than the capacity of the Single A baseball stadium next door” despite literally giving out free beer, Notte tweeted.)

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“I was thinking Shawshank Redemption, drinking five beers out of the bucket on the roof, everybody's happy… Then all of a sudden, it turned into what it did,” the coach told Football Scoop. “The president, AD, everybody, afterward they thought it was the greatest promotion they’d ever seen from the university… And I was just talking out my ass to [sportswriter John Canzano] on the radio.”

Despite my skepticism, I must admit that Barnum seems kinda… great?2 Maybe that’s what happens when you pay coaches six figures instead of seven. As far as I can tell, Dabo Swinney never bought $14,448 worth of beer for anybody.


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🧾 The Bottom Shelf

  • Is Hard Seltzer Killing the Classic College Kegger?: New from me at VinePair, a feature about what everyone’s favorite FMB is doing to the venerable campus tradition of keg parties. I won’t spoil the story for you but I will say that I was shocked by the number of college drinkers I spoke with who claimed they’d never seen a keg, period. Kids these days, etc.

  • A Community Over The Barrel: Friend of Fingers, fellow newsletter operator, and food journalist par excellence has a new story about a dog-friendly Charleston beer bar that proved itself to be very unfriendly to its neighbors. It’s a great piece, and one that speaks to a bigger debate about who typically gets to decide how Southern cities grow and change, and for what reasons.

  • The Bartender Who Quit Cocktails to Become a Mortician: If that headline doesn’t make you click, I don’t think anything I can write here will, either. But I enjoyed the hell out of this piece from Grub Street’s Chris Crowley.

  • Out of Character: Can Lager Masquerade with an IPA Brand?: Here’s BeerCrunchers’ Doug Veliky with a smart, fun little piece of analysis on whether New Belgium’s Voodoo Ranger line—the country’s best-selling IPA family—has room for a new lager extension. Semi-related: Veliky has also leaned heavily into beer-themed TikToks lately. Follow him there or on Twitter, if you’re into that sort of thing!

1

Under tremendous pressure, earlier this year the NCAA finally reversed its long-held and kinda-racist stance on amateurism to allow players to begin cashing in on their “NILs” (name, image, likeness.) Our man Dabo took the news like a sputtering pissbaby, claiming that he was never against players getting paid (he was), that a lot of players won’t make money under the NILs system (he’s right, that’s why schools should just pay them), and that if he was in charge, this would all be be better (it wouldn’t.) Cool, cool, cool.

2

Although, maybe not. Notte also directed my attention to a story detailing the sexual harassment allegations the PSU head coach faced in 2017. “He should, by all accounts, be on thin ice with the university,” said Notte. “But they’re Portland State and can't attract anyone else and he beat Washington State back in 2015, so what the hell, right?”