Canadian Beer: A Part of Our Heritage

  The following is a little academic but it is an interesting analysis of how Beer commercials have tried to foster and create a Canadian identity.  

Canada has no cultural unity, no linguistic unity, no religious unity, no economic unity, no geographic unity.  All it has is unity.

– Kenneth Boulding, University of Michigan professor of economics (1957).

            The question is nearly as old as the nation itself: what does it mean to be Canadian?  How do we, as Canadian people define ourselves, define our country, and differentiate ourselves from others?  How do we, people spread across a vast geography, originating from diverse lands and cultures, come together to form a unique identity that we can all call our own?  How do we define a home in Canada that can house us all?  The search for answers also began long ago and, arguably, in an increasingly global environment, has gained momentum in the last decade.  The literature is building, the concern manifesting itself across politics and policy.  Should we stop the American penetration into our country?  Should we attempt to encourage a less diversified population?  Should we promote a sense of history from which to be proud?  Or, should we head up to the cottage, grab a Canadian brew, turn on some hockey, and brag about how cold it is outside?  Now before you dismiss this suggestion as absurd, I propose you give it some thought.  Does such an environment not define, somehow, something, about what it means to be Canadian? 

Ian Angus, in his book A Border Within: National Identity, Cultural Plurality, and Wilderness, states: “society is understood, not as an objectively existing structure that can be studied apart from social consciousness, but as something that is constituted through the practices of social actors whereby they identify with selected aspects of their social world” (21).  Thus maybe the cottage-country goin’, beer drinkin’, hockey watchin’, winter lovin’ Canuck, may have something important to teach us about our society, eh!  While this may all seem quite ridiculous, I propose that it is not.  There is something very unique about Canada and being Canadian, and somewhere within the stereotypes and ironies there exists important meaning for why Canada can be defined through such images.  You don’t believe me!  Well, maybe you should talk to the folks down at Molson and Labatt breweries and ask them how their add campaigns are going.  You see, the guys down there are somewhat ahead of the politicians and intellectual elite in their efforts to define a Canadian identity.  They’ve done some research, and they’ve studied their audience, and I believe they’ve discovered some pretty important stuff.  I would like to explore the advertising efforts and campaigns employed by Canadian beer companies attempting to capitalize off an increased feeling of national identity among Canadian youth.  What will be demonstrated is that a Canadian identity must begin with the people, and must succeed in incorporating, and allowing the inclusion of, various diverse interpretations of what it means to be Canadian.  All this can be situated within a framework of our enjoyment of Canada, its landscape, its people, its diversity, and yes, even its beer.

There are important reasons why Canadians have sought to establish an identity.

“One cannot be insistent about the existence of Canada as an independent nation without giving some content to the distinctiveness of Canadian identity….If one is looking for something to preserve and develop, then one must stress one’s uniqueness” (Angus 106).  There are many ways in which nations attempt to establish their uniqueness, and attempts to do so have often met with strong criticism.  Nationalism is often considered to be dangerous, for just as it defines, it also excludes.  “Every discussion of nationalism includes a survey of the various factors that may become symbolic for national identity.  Most often mentioned are ethnicity, blood, race, religion, language, cultural values, history, geography, and psychology” (Angus 13).  Because Canada is a nation that thrives to preserve diversity, establishing a national identity has been rightly difficult.  Canadian nationalism contradicts what Canada promotes through its laws, culture and attitudes.

Yet national identity does not have to be associated with the exclusivist forms of nationalism.  “There is no basis for defining the nation, or even nationalism, as generically and by definition exclusivist” (Angus 14).  Canada thus can develop an identity that is inclusive and appropriate, but it must not seek to do so with the models of other nations in mind.  “[T]he main valuable aspects of English Canadian national identity has been to propose a non-exclusive form that is amenable both to other nations and to its own internal diversity” (Angus 14).

Angus notes:

…the forms of expression in which society externalizes its self-understanding are of particular interest.  These may include conventionally ‘cultural’ phenomena…but should be understood in a wider, more anthropological sense of culture to include everyday activities ‘in their characteristic style (Edmund Husserl), which comprise a ‘structure of feeling’ (Raymond Willimas) that is lived as a ‘form of life’ (Ludwig Wittgenstein).  (21)

Canadian identity originates amidst the people, and it is the people who can offer definitions of Canadian culture through their everyday practices.  Kieran Keohane, in his article Symptoms of Canada: An Essay on the Canadian Identity, declares: “The discourse of Canadian nationalism is concerned with Canadian national enjoyment” (19).  Instead of looking for other qualifying aspects of Canadianess, Keohane proposes that we look towards enjoyment for identity.  He says: “Unfortunately, human rights, hospitals, and pensions just do not turn people on.”  “We need some new sublime objects of identification and we need to do new takes on our old ones.  We need to work on, revise, and produce a Canadian tradition” (28).  Angus furthers this notion, for as he states: “A feeling of belonging such as constitutes national identity might well lend itself to manipulation and propaganda” (15).  National identity has to come from somewhere and be promoted.  The question is, where? 

Politicians have been trying for years to establish a national identity for it is clearly in their best survival interests to do so.  The problem is, can their definition of Canada coincide with, or include, ours?  Nicole Nolan does not think so.  In her aggressive, potent, and in my opinion excellent, article Memo to Sheila Copps: Forget those flags.  The slickest new nationalism is in the latest wave of beer ads, she declares: “national identity has been left in the hands of Canada’s gruesome TV Heritage moments and Sheila Copps’ $23 million flag giveaway campaign….Both are pretty grim signs of how far the government is out of touch with Canadians” (389).  Nolan argues that the government is promoting an unappealing sense of nationalism to Canadians:

It’s a scheme guaranteed to leave younger generations distasteful; after you’ve seen some of the atrocities committed in the name of nationalism in Bosnia, the U.S., or Burundi, the very idea of waving a flag seems offensive.  No doubt Copps’ flags hold strong appeal for my grandmother, but at the age of 81, she hardly represents the future of the nation. (389) 

Nolan’s argument highlights the concerns that surround nationalism.  She is critical of politicians’ efforts to define Canadians in their terms, for their best interests.  She proposes that a more appropriate national identity is being developed elsewhere, in the Canadian beer advertisements.  “Witty, cosmopolitan, simultaneously proud and self-deprecating, the Molson and Labatt ads are the only blips on the radar that are even attempting to rethink what ‘Canada’ means in the late twentieth century” (389-90).  Nolan argues that Canadian youth are especially hungry for some kind of identity to call their own.  They cannot find this amidst historical commercials and flags, but are increasingly pleased with what the beer ads are representing.  “The patriotism [Molson and Labatt] portray is, after all, completely apolitical; it’s all about hanging out and having a good time, and has nothing to do with difficult notions like, say, social responsibility” (Nolan 393).  The ads focus on enjoyment, Canadians enjoyment of their country.  “’Beer is our country’s great social lubricant,’ says David Kincaid, vice-president of marketing at Labatt” (Wilson-Smith, Maclean’s).  Nolan asserts: “What is impressive is that…Molson and Labatt have done a shockingly good job of tapping into the national zeitgeist” (393).  “[Their] ads are some of the most compelling things I’ve seen in the area of national identity” (389). 

            Nolan believes that the beer companies are very in-tuned to their audiences’ desire for images of Canada and the Canadian.  They are also very aware of the political and social climate of the times.  Nolan explains:

One sure sign that the beer companies understand the game they’re playing is that they keep their nationalist campaigns far, far away from Quebec….Molson, for example, has never marketed its Canadian brand in Quebec, for fear it would be snubbed.  And as for Labatt—…it’s missing the shiny little maple leaf that peeks out from behind the brand name in the rest of the country. (392)

Nolan makes a strong case disclosing the knowledge that the beer companies have in regard to their consumers’ sentiments.  They are then in a better position to promote a national identity for the people than the politicians who seem so distanced from the people.  An examination then, of Molson and Labatt’s participation in the creation of a popular Canadian identity, is very important and useful.  Several writers have already discussed the ads and affiliations of the breweries, and I would like to gather them here, as well as discuss some of my own impressions, in order to build a strong case for beer as a part of our Canadian heritage. 

            Primarily, targeting youth, the beer companies know where the action is in Canada.  Campaigns have developed around rock music and hockey.  Andrew Cash, in his article Rebels with Sponsors, describes the beer companies affiliation with the Canadian music industry, artists, and fans:

It all started back in the mid-eighties.  That’s when Molson and Labatt discovered that rock promotion was a unique tool—not to mention a cash cow.  One of the first big, sponsored Canadian rock tours was Labatt’s promotion of Platinum Blonde….The Blondes were on their way to becoming a Canadian phenomenon, eventually selling half-a-million albums in this country….[T]he success of that tour set the stage for a war between Molson and Labatt for the rock dollar. (365)

The beer companies found their perfect consumer group and they chose to promote the Canadian rock culture along side their beer.  “Between 1985 and 1990 there was virtually no summer outdoor music or community event that did not have some financial support and advertising presence from one of the two big breweries” (Cash 365).  Though concerns have been voiced in regard to the promotion of beer amidst youth, and anger that “the idea that beer is what rock music is all about” has been promoted, the breweries have helped advertise and support Canadian artists (Cash 365).  When Canadian youth gather together in Canada to see Canadian bands, a sense of Canadian youth identity is fostered and it is “brought to you by” Molson/Labatt. 

According to Jim Anderson, a research consultant with health Canada: “Beer companies aim advertising at 19 to 35-year-old white males, the demographic group that drinks the most beer.  Events such as Molson Canadian Rocks “Blind Date” contest—which offered the chance to see a major “mystery” band—tap directly into that desired market segment” (qtd. in Journal Addiction Research Foundation).  “’Our consumers of Molson Canadian are young adults and like music,’ said Marilyn McCrea, Molson’s director of corporate affairs.  ‘We’re always looking at innovative ways of marketing to consumers’” (qtd. in J-A-R-F).  Molson promotes concerts all over Canada and also have contests to bring winners from across the country together to enjoy Canadian music.  Such contests encourage a sense of shared identity that spreads from west to east, north to south.  The contests seek to unite Canadian youth who often feel very different from their brothers and sisters across the country.  Such a social, and enjoyable atmosphere, where youth can come to enjoy music together, is thus ideal to the development of a Canadian youth culture. 

While the beer companies are promoting Canadian youth identity, they are also supporting the Canadian music industry.  Cash describes how they are doing this:

In exchange for the appearance [in a Labatt ad campaign commercial], cases of Labatt’s beer contained a free CD single from one of the four bands [featured].  From the musician’s standpoint, they weren’t selling beer—they were selling themselves.  And it worked.  Both Hugh Dillon and the Headstones and Tom Wilson of Junkhouse have said that their records sold much better during the length of the campaign. (368)

Labatt is enabling Canadian musician’s music to be heard, and they are also selling more beer by giving away the extra CD treat.  The beer companies have discovered that music and concerts are important to Canadian youth, and sponsoring music is a positive way to gain popularity and recognition.   

            Molson and Labatt also have a strong relationship with hockey in Canada.  Don Kitchen, president of Labatt, told Maclean’s magazine: “when you add beer to hockey, you have two great defining elements of Canada” (Wilson-Smith).  The two breweries have both been involved with the NHL.  Molson had sponsored the NHL and run Hockey Night In Canada for years, but now, after being asked to pay increased costs, Molson chose not to renew its contract with the NHL.  Labatt quickly moved in and took over.  “Labatt…says [Steve] Solomon [NHL senior VP and COO] was ecstatic at the prospect of getting involved with the NHL hockey.  ‘They understand the value of what hockey means in Canada,’ he says….’They know the sport is at the core of the sports culture in Canada.  And they know what kind of exposure Saturday night hockey will mean for their brands’” (Menzies, Marketing Magazine, 38).  There had been some criticism that Molson was not advertising Hockey Night In Canada sufficiently and that the popularity was weaning.  Labatt promised to revive the hockey spirit in Canada.  “Indeed, Alan Clark, head of network sports at the CBC, is elated with the change in sponsors.  ‘Labatt is going to get Hockey Night In Canada back into the hearts and minds of Canadians,’ he says” (Menzies, MM).  Labatt is eager to use hockey as a Canadian unifying element on which to focus and advertise beer. 

“In Ontario, Labatt is inserting hockey highlight videotapes into cases of Blue” (Menzies, MM).   Molson had run a similar Hockey affiliated campaign in the winter of 1999, putting miniature hockey sticks inside cases of Molson Canadian.  A recent radio ad also expresses Canadians love of hockey.  In the ad, you hear a man enter a noisy bar and ask for a Molson Canadian.  He then says “hi” to a girl next to him.  She responds in a sultry, sexy, yet uninterested voice “hi”.  He asks “do you like hockey?”, she answers rudely “no”.  He then pauses and asks “do you have a sister that likes hockey?”.  Molson shows us what matters to Canadians, and our almost absurd love of the game.

Labatt has also included the hockey element in its add campaigns.  Labatt’s ad campaign “a whole lot can happen out of the blue” is based on the public’s adoration of hockey as a Canadian sport.  The most successful add involved a man walking down the street with a hockey stick, stickhandling a can.  Everyone joins in and creates a game in the street.  A man plays goalie with his briefcase, and everyone participates in the excitement.  Adam Emery, in Canadian Packaging, comments: “The result is a resonating feeling that hockey, and by extension Labatt Blue, is an integral facet of Canadian society, bubbling beneath the surface, just waiting for the slightest excuse to burst out” (24-26).  The ad was received very positively by Canadians, and Labatt believes that they have successfully represented an aspect of the Canadian identity which is the underlying love of hockey. 

Another more recent ad, depicts a couple of guys being pulled over by the police on the side of the road.  They tell the policeman that they’ve “got the cup”.  They had gone to Detroit and stolen the Stanley cup, which they believed rightly belonged to Canada.  The policeman agrees and he arranges for the guys to be escorted safely, with the cup, by police.  Labatt is eager to nourish these feelings of love for the game of hockey.  It developed its own Labatt Saturday Night pre-hockey program, which involves showing hockey clips and discussing the up-coming game.  Hockey Night In Canada has also had a facelift, under Labatt, in an attempt to foster new audiences.  Hockey is an important area for the breweries for they know how valuable it can be to foster spirit and unity amidst Canadians. 

            While both Molson and Labatt have been very involved in developing their brand names in association with music and hockey, they are also developing advertisements that propose other areas of Canadian identification.  The companies are both focusing on nationalist campaigns that seek to assert a Canadian identity that can be tied to enjoyment of the country, and hopefully the enjoyment of their beer.  By exploring what aspects of Canada Canadian youth can enjoy, and designate as part of their identity, several creative ads have come to exemplify what Canada, and a Canadian identity offers youth.  “Unlike other national groups, who tend to take their membership in the nation-state with the utmost solemnity, there’s a delightfully strong strain in Canadian culture that just can’t take the whole damn thing seriously” (Nolan 391).  Robert Fulford noted in 1982: “The curious fact is that, in order to qualify as Canadians, we are not required to be loyal, even in theory, to the idea of Canada” (qtd. in Olive 102).  Thus how are the beer ads succeeding in creating both an image of Canada and a Canadian identity, that people will be satisfied with and encourage.  Keohane elaborates:

‘What is the Canadian way of life?’ it proves impossible to give anything like a definitive answer.  The best we can do is to give examples of cultural practices that are ‘typically Canadian,’ such as for example are portrayed in the lifeworld of the characters Bob and Doug Mckenzie on SCTV (eh!) or in the advertisements for Molson’s Canadian beer. (20)

The beer advertisements do not offer idealized nationalist visions of Canadians; they merely highlight Canadian aspects of enjoyment and offer them as areas of identification for Canadians.  “Molson, unlike the government, has actually done its research.  As [Marilyn] McCrea [Molson’s spokesperson] notes, focus groups showed them that the young people were turned on only by a subtle patriotism.  ‘Most Canadians are not ‘rah rah’ but they’re still proud to be Canadians,’ she explains” (Nolan 392).  Several examples of such beer ads will demonstrate the direction in which the breweries have gone towards the fabrication of a Canadian identity. 

            Primarily, Keohane notes:

What is interesting about these [Molson] advertisements is that they inadvertently show the hollowness, the original ‘lack’ (of meaning), that underpins the identity ‘Canadian.’  It is nothing ‘essential’: it is a contingent precarious identity; something socially constructed; a hegemonic construction; constructed in this instance by Molson’s advertising department. (20)

Keohane provides an example of such ads: 

The advertisements…depict ‘typical Canadians’ doing ‘uniquely Canadian things’: dancing at a cool Queen Street club, unloading a canoe, chopping firewood, buying ice, cottage-ing; skiing, skating, tobogganing, hanging out at a campsite, and so on.  The advertisements conclude: ‘Molson’s Canadian: what beer [read ‘what being Canadian’] is all about’. (20) 

A recent ad by Molson reflects these themes but it adds another element which highlights Canadian social values.  This ad begins with several carloads of youth arriving up in the woods at a cottage party.  A few guys draw straws and then the loser jumps out of the car, rips off his shirt, and shines flashlights all around as he dances madly.  The carloads of people empty as everyone rushes into the cabin.  The ‘loser’, had sacrificed his body to the mosquitoes so that his friends could get into the cottage without itchy incident.  Once inside, a friend brings the loser a cold beer to put on his new mosquito bites.  The ad is both humorous and sentimental for a Canadian who can relate both to cottage parties and pesky bugs.  The idea that the guys would draw strays to sacrifice their bodies though, seems somehow Canadian.  It provides us with a personal image of Canadians which we appreciate and like to be associated with.

Another ad appeals to both Canadian tradition and quirky humor.  Kevin Grace describes it:  “[The commercial] takes place in a rural setting at night.  A young man approaches a soaring, and powerfully backlighted, maple tree.  He carries a mug and a tap.  He plunges the spigot into the tree, turns the tap – and out flows cold, frothy beer” (British Columbia Report 53).  Grace believes that “If there is such a thing as a Canadian identity, this is it.  Forget social programs; forget tolerance, compassion and diversity…-cold beer on a hot, glorious summer evening: now that’s Canada” (BCR 53).

Grace describes another ad which is based on the much held view that Canadians are very respected and liked all over the world, and are well received as travelers.  In this ad, “an astronaut is about to [be] zapped into another dimension by aliens before they discover the Canadian flag on his flightpack.  Partying down ensues” (BCR 53). 

Molson promotes a Canadian identity based on enjoyment, humour and respect.  They encourage a sense of pride.  They have had two advertising mottoes, “I AM” meaning Canadian, and “Here’s where we get Canadian”.  Both mottoes are accompanied by the ads that reflect images that encourage an identity and pride therein.  Marketing Magazine describes one of the campaigns:

Molson’s ‘new tag line’ ‘Here’s where we get Canadian’—features a group of people in a bar who suddenly exit to the patio to go back in the sun when they hear the sound of an icicle melting.   The campaign is built around the brand’s historical equities: youthful spirit, sociability and Canadian values. (1)

The “I AM” ads work in the same way.  They accentuate the environment that youth love, and the values that they maintain.  They depict Canadians at play, enjoying Canada and each other.  One particularly powerful ad is described by Nolan:

A running-shoe-clad young man approaches a baggage carousel in a Canadian airport….As the youth claims his maple-leaf emblazoned back pack, a series of funky, pencil-drawn cartoons flit across the screen—the Eiffel Tower, a tropical island, a pyramid, Big Ben, a kangaroo and, finally, a pair of eyes whose pupils metamorphose into a beaver, then a hockey puck.  Meanwhile, a young male voice explains…:  “Hell is a world where you have no home, and even though I was in heaven, something drew me back home.  I can’t put into words the things I’ve seen, the places I’ve been or what it all means.  Because it’s not so much what you look at but when you look, what you see”….”And now I see that my eyes are the eyes of the world, and in my eyes…I am.”  Cut to a shot of a flickering image of the word “Canadian”. (388-89)

This ad promotes a Canadian identity that we must discover that we have.  Even though Canada does not have the rich history and culture of many other nations, there is something unique and distinct about it.  “In the “I AM” ads, “Canadian” isn’t a static identity: it’s multiple, varied, and changing.  It’s whatever you want it to be, whatever you are.  It’s also…an identity with which you can choose to ally yourself or not” (Nolan 392).  Molson is not trying to declare what a Canadian should be, they are merely acknowledging that a Canadian can be. 

            A recent ad demonstrates this more clearly. 

The…ad opened with a long tracking shot of a vast, endless, Gothic cathedral.  Therein toiled thousands of chimpanzees on primitive writing machines.  The copy: “An infinite number of monkey’s on an infinite number of typewriters will eventually define all that is Canada”. (Grace, BCR)

Molson is very aware of the difficulty in defining concrete national matter to Canadians.  The company thus plays with the material that it does have, and it is succeeding very well.  “In retooling nationalism for a Gen-X audience, Molson has carried out the brilliant maneuver of taking that boring old chestnut, the famed English-Canadian lack of identity, and making a virtue out of it” (Nolan 392).  Molson acknowledges the lack of identity that we do have, and they thus offer entertaining, popular, ways to fill in that lack.  One ad plays on our lack of history in particular.  The ad is called ‘Great Events in Canadian History’, it unfolds as follows:

‘Great event in Canadian history’ #1: ‘After a night of lousy hands Grant Skinner is dealt 3 aces, draws 2 queens, and cleans up.’  ‘Great event’ #2: ‘Against all the odds so-and-so’s parents allow him to have the cottage for the Labour Day weekend.’  #3: “So-and-so and so-and-so throw a party and become legends overnight.’ (Keohane 38)

Keohane elaborates on the ad campaign that featured this ad: “These ads cleverly play on a Canadian enjoyment of the lack of particularity” (38).  Furthermore, “The ad works to sell bear for Molson’s in so far as Molson’s successfully articulates itself and its product as a symptom that intervenes between the consumer and the lack, which Canadians can identify with and love” (Keohane 38). 

            Molson wants to be all-Canadian, the beer made by Canadians, for Canadians, representing all that is Canadian.  They have recently bought back all of Molson industry from Australia and the U.S., in order to promote there 100% Canadian quality.  James Arnett, Molson’s president, “expects Canadians to raise their glasses in ever-increasing numbers” because it is now an all Canadian beer and company (Waal, Canadian Business, 18). 

            Labatt, though foreign owed, also promotes a Canadian identity through advertising.  Labatt has developed several advertisements that focus on Canadians’ ironic, satirical sense of humour.  Nolan describes one of the Labatt posters which features a beaver with the word eagle written on it:

…the beaver/eagle comparison reminds us of our inferiority to America.  Their country’s national symbol is a high-flying mountain bird, glorious in its independence and predatory ferocity; ours is a small, furry, water creature with buck teeth, renowned for biting off its own testicles when cornered.  It seems pretty obvious who’s superior.  On the other hand, the fact that we can acknowledge this fact and laugh about it means that we’re not terribly invested in the whole stupid national-animal bullshit anyway, which, in turn, makes us superior. (391)

Labatt advertisements mock the idea of identity.  They laugh at Canada’s attempt to establish one, and they simultaneously provide a much more popular representation of Canadians through humour. 

A popular Labatt ad campaign involves a satirical play on Canada’s heritage moments.  Labatt introduces Jacques and William as the French and English heroes who established Canada.  Nolan describes one of the ads:

“Opening shot: Two scruffy-looking explorer types canoe along a river in a rocky, pine-strewn wilderness.  The tittle tells us this is “Somewhere in Canada, 1734.” 

Jacques: (in a French accent and swatting a mosquito) Such wilderness, William.

William: (in a British accent) Today, yes, Jacques, but someday…someday it will be a great country.

Jacques: (swatting again at the mosquito) You think so?

William: Absolutely. You see, they shall perfect a game called hockey, invent the telephone, rescue England and France twice, and make one incredibly good beer. A true, Canadian lager.

Jacques: (being bitten by a mosquito) Sacre bleu!

William: Yes! That’s it!

Cut to a shot of a foaming glass of Labatt Blue” (388).

Labatt is mocking the heritage moments and providing its own heritage moment that will actually appeal to Canadians.  William and Jacques are the ideal Canadian goofs.  “At the same time that [Labatt] forwards all the clichéd ‘why Canada is great’ dogma, they’re viciously undercutting it.  Sure, Canada is great and has a beautiful wilderness, but, hey, you know what?  The wilderness sucks.  It’s full of mosquitoes.  It’s also fucking cold” (Nolan 390).  Labatt acknowledges the futility of trying to foster identity through sentimental, historical images.  Canadians do not feel very sentimental about their history, if they even feel that they have one.  To encourage Canadian youth to feel that they have an identity, or want one, the identity has to appeal to them in the first place.  Labatt appeals to a Canadian sense of humour that mocks all efforts at taking Canada too seriously.  We’re here, we’re Canadian, and we would just like to have some fun.  So why not cultivate these ideas of fun as innately Canadian in order to concretize an image.

            Kokanee, a beer partially owed by Labatt, which is very popular in Western Canada, has begun advertising along these lines.  Their gimmick: “The Kokanee Mountain Patrol”.  This patrol is a group of young people, in uniforms, who go around making sure that Canadians are having fun and enjoying Kokanee beer.  Commercials depict the patrol crashing parties in order to make certain that everyone is enjoying themselves.  There are even actual people who are hired, in parts of B.C. to go to bars and give prizes to people who are having fun and drinking Kokanee beer.  The campaign is encouraging Canadians to enjoy themselves and the outdoors.  Several commercials, busted by the patrol, depict youth in the outdoors, enjoying nature, the barbecue, the cold etc.  “According to Labatt….why bother with all this ethnic and national-identity stuff, seeing as we’re all a bunch of idiots, anyway?” (Nolan 390). 

            Whatever the angle, both Molson and Labatt have been widely successful with their Canadian campaigns.  Beyond success in terms of dollars, Molson and Labatt are successful in feeding young Canadians’ desire for an identity.  There seems to be an increased pride amidst Canadian youth which has arisen in the last decade or so.  T-shirts expressing “Canadian girls kick ass”, “Canada rules”, “I love Canadians”, “Made in Canada” etc. have become popular.  Young Canadians who travel these days will never leave home without an adornment of Canadian flags.  The Kids in the Hall are even reuniting “due to popular demand” to perform in theaters across Canada.  There’s even a sequel to Strange Brew currently being made.  I think it is not too presumptuous to propose that there is a link between the extensive pro-Canadian advertising campaigns from Molson and Labatt, and this more proud, patriotic group of Canadian youth.

Molson and Labatt have provided a framework of Canadianess that is very appealing and easy to fit into.  Their campaigns have encouraged youth to come together at concerts and sporting events, and they have demonstrated what we all have in common.  By staying away from nationalist “ideals” and avoiding politics, the beer companies have managed to create the most encompassing, flexible, and enjoyable definition of identity proposed thus far.  The ads are in keeping with what we value as Canadians: freedom, equality, multiculturalism, friendliness, endurance, survival, and a quirky sense of humour.  The ads are appealing because the image they represent is appealing to us.  What is most remarkable, is that our new image is now also being propagated in the U.S.  Yes, the threatening land next door, who penetrate us daily with their culture, are now getting a taste of Canada.

            Labatt blue is “the biggest brand to flow south from Canada [into the U.S.], and only Corona Extra and Heineken outsell it among immigrant brews” (Prince, BW).  Not only is a Canadian beer (though foreign owed) being sold in large quantities in the U.S., it is also being marketed as Canadian.  Tom Cardella, vice president of Marketing for Labatt Blue U.S, states: “We’ve stayed very consistent with our overall positioning behind the brand….We’ve continued to reinforce its Canadian heritage” (Prince, BW).  Furthermore, “Cardella says the brand’s success in such proximity to Canada proves its authenticity to those just finding it and that is extremely important as Blue moves South” (Prince, BW).  Labatt is marketing its beer as Canadian in hopes that that will appeal to Americans.  Imagine that, Canadian cultural propaganda in the U.S. 

Gerry Khermouch, in his article Better than the average bear? describes the ad campaign:

Ammirati Puris Lintas employs a man in a bear suit for the beer’s first U.S.-only campaign.  In the first spot, the bear hops on a bus from “up North” to New York after hearing that Labatt Blue is available in the States.  The commercials go on to chronicle his urban adventures: an attempt to buy beer without a driver’s license; a friendship he strikes up with Japanese patrons of a sushi bar; and a bar stool encounter with a beautiful woman who invites him home. (Adweek)

Khermouch believes that “The humor stems from the premise that people are intrigued by him not as a bear, but as a Canadian.  The tagline is “Labatt Blue: Pure Canada” (Adweek).  This ad is very important in demonstrating that not only has Labatt created a Canadian identity in Canada, but they are even promoting that identity in the U.S.  The chronicles of the bear are in keeping with Canadian identity ideology.  The bear is silly and funny as he tries to get away with buying beer without a license.  He is also friendly and can make friends with people from other ethnic and cultural backgrounds, which is in keeping with Canada’s multicultural values.  The bear is also presented as well liked and even romantically so by Americans.  “Labatt has created a glib but unpretentious character in a bear suit to symbolize Canada, and Americans’ reaction to Canada” (Khermouch, Adweek).  [I must note however, that you’d have to leave it up to the Americans to present the Canadian bear sleeping with the American women.  In Canada beer doesn’t have to get you laid in order to sell.]

            Molson had also begun advertising its beer in the U.S. by accentuating its Canadian origin and identity.  Molson, however, used the Canadian pop-culture favorites Bob and Doug Mckenzie.  This ad campaign was not as successful and was criticized as being “too downscale for an import” (Khermouch, Adweek).  More likely, the absurd Canadian humor our favorite brothers display didn’t quite translate into American.     

 Successful, or unsuccessful, the fact that our beer, is being sold as our beer, and recognized as our beer, is very important.  Here we have a cultural commodity freely traveling over the border representing our distinct identity.  Some American Joes are actually picking up a bottle of Canadian brew and thinking, “hey, this is pure Canada”, “this is the authentic beer of our toque tottin’, winter lovin’, real alcohol content beer drinkin’, neighbors.”  Besides mounties, beavers, and Ross Regliati, we now have another symbol of Canada that can be recognized across the boarder.  And what does it symbolize?  Good fun, good nature, good people, good beer.  There’s nothing wrong with that.

            Nicole Nolan recounts an announcement she heard on the radio: “’Well, it’s Canada Day…So let’s all head up to that Great Canadian Cottage in the Great Canadian Wilderness and fire up that Great Canadian Barbeque.  Yep.  Canada.  The country that gave us Paul Anka, Bob and Doug Mckenzie—and poutine!” (391).  We don’t need national animals and symbols to represent us.  We don’t need sentimental historical narratives to situate us.  We don’t need legislation to ensure our protection.  We don’t need politicians telling us who we are or how we should be.  We know what matters to us and what we enjoy.  We laugh at everyone else and we know that we’re funny.  We saw how Saturday Night Live fell apart without us, and we know how much their willing to pay for our hockey players.  This though, to us, is obvious. 

Canadians are already working out the problem of national identity, in the streets, in the workplaces, in bars, and in the bedrooms across the country, where racially and ethnically mixed neighbours and lovers struggle for mutual respect, constituting the terms of a new enjoyment on an everyday basis. (Keohane 30)

The beer companies Molson and Labatt have discovered what it is Canadians enjoy about Canada, and beginning with that simple premise, they have managed to capture an identity that embraces the people of Canada and offers them a happy home to live in together.  Nolan notes that “It’s too bad that this proven Canadian appetite for multiplicity and irony has been left in the hands of beer companies” but thus far, they seem to be the only one’s who have been able to successfully, and continuously, capture, and propagate it (393).  I guess the beer companies knew where to look.  Who would have thought that a whole identity could be created around not having one, an identity based on enjoyment of a country by a people, who, if only in that, are united.

Sources Cited

1)    Angus, Ian. A Border Within: National Identity, Cultural Plurality, and Wilderness. Montreal: Mcgill-Queen’s University Press, 1997.

2)    Cash, Andrew. “”Rebels with Sponsors.” Canadian Communications: Issues in Contemporary Media and Culture.  Eds. Bohdan Szuchewycz and Jeannette Sloniowski. Scarborough: Prentice Hall Allyn and Bacon Canada, 1999.

3)    Emery, Adam. “Out of the blue: after his first year, Don Kitchen has Labatt’s Canadian operation running smoothly.” Canadian Packaging.(CP) March, 1998: Pg 24-26.

4)    Grace, Kevin D. “ Canada on tap: an infinite number of TV beer ads will eventually define the nation.” British Columbia Report.(BCR) 13 July, 1998: Pg. 53.

5)    Journal Addiction Research Foundation.(JARF) V.25(5) “Beer company contests worry health promoters.” September/October, 1996: Pg. 3.

6)    Keohane, Kieran. “Symptoms of Canada: An Essay on the Canadian Identity.” Toronto: University of Toronto Press.

7)    Khermouch, Gerry. “Better than the average bear?” Adweek. [Eastern edition] 8 Feb., 1999.

8)    Khermouch, Gerry. “Labatt, bullish on Blue, taps bear marketing for the first U.S.-only ads.” Brandweek. 8 Feb., 1999.

9)    Marketing Magazine. (MM) “Canadian returns to its roots.” 19 Aug., 1999: Pg.1.

10) Menzies, David. “Game on.” Marketing Magazine. (MM) 12 October, 1998: Pg. 9-11.

11) Nolan, Nicole. “Memo to Sheila Copps: Forget those flags. The slickest new nationalism is in the latest wave of beer ads.” Canadian Communications: Issues in Contemporary Media and Culture. Eds. Bohdan Szuchewycz and Jeannette Sloniowski. Scarborough: Prentice Hall Allyn and Bacon Canada, 1999.

12) Olive, David. Canada Inside Out. Toronto: Doubleday Canada Limited, 1996.

13) Prince, Greg W. “Blue Beery Hill.” Beverage World (BW) 15 Feb., 1999: Pg. 54-58.

14) Waal, Peter. “Molson muscle? The brewery is now 100% Canadian, but the stratefy behind its share buyback is a couple of cans short of a six-pack.” Canadian Business. (CB) 14 Aug., 1998: Pg. 18.

15) Wilson-Smith, Anthony. “The beer playoffs: the puck has been dropped in the high-stakes battle of the breweries.” Maclean’s [Toronto] 3 May, 1999: Pg. 38.



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4 responses to “Canadian Beer: A Part of Our Heritage

  1. Interesting study. Although I disagree with the focus on youth and the disparaging attitude towards history, you make some good points. I have enjoyed the ad campaigns by Molson and Labatts, they are pretty funny, but it is scary that we let corporations determine our worth.

  2. Philippe Tremblay

    “[…] as for Labatt—…it’s missing the shiny little maple leaf that peeks out from behind the brand name in the rest of the country.”

    Not only that, but Labatt also play the nationalist card in Québec. During the Québec National Holiday they run ads with the slogan “Fiers d’êtres bleus” (“Proud to be blue”, a reference to the Québec flag).

  3. Susan Lowe

    Great article. Hurray for the brewing companies and advertisers. Is there a Labatts or Molsons museum anywhere where these ads could be featured?

  4. Pingback: Beer + Canadian = Canada « Canadian Fermentation

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