These days, some of the greatest moments in sports television come during the timeouts: gripping, close-up video squalls of slam dunks, deflected pucks and padded bodies arched against each other in crucial tests of muscle and will. These are not NFL, NBA or NHL highlights.
These are beer commercials.
Specifically, they're spots for Budweiser Light--which, with its series of 30-second "Bring Out Your Best" minidramas, has done for workaday would-be jocks what Miller Lite began doing eight years ago for the already-have-beens.
Miller Lite puts the Billy Martins and John Maddens into bars and bowling alleys and lets them do what they want, which is act like famous sports cut-ups. In pursuit of "the young, active, on-the-go beer drinker," Bud Light gets competent, no-name athletes, puts them in real-life game situations, and lets them enact the American Dream: to perform well enough under pressure to deserve a beer. A diet beer, yes, but symbolic enough.
"They don't even know my name," laments the rookie pro lineman, narrating his Bud Light debut at a training camp football scrimmage. The music and editing promote tension, determination. The ball is snapped, and our half-minute hero slams into the veteran defender with a vengeance.
The whistle blows, and the vet (played by former 49er Dave Wilcox) pushes back his attacker far enough to read the name taped on his helmet, as a faint smile crosses his mean face. The line is becoming a cult classic:
Music up and under. Vindication. Croeter has brought out his best; now it's time to bring out Budweiser's.
The idea behind this isn't new, it's just well executed. ABC's Roone Arledge altered the entire tone of network sports coverage with his "up close and personal" treatment of athletes, backing up ABC's 20-year-old promise of bringing us "the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat" with tight shots and telling emphasis on the individual--the Olympic goalie, the earnest boxer, the pixieish, perfect-10 gymnast.
The same idea works in these commercials for Anheuser-Busch, courtesy of the Chicago advertising firm of Needham, Harper and Steers, which introduced the Bud Light campaign last summer: Personalize. Get their faces, their motivation. And Bud Light has two additional luxuries neither ABC nor any other network ever had: a) it can boil a contest down to 30 of its most riveting, telling seconds, and b) it can make the whole thing up in the first place.
There's a Bud Light spot for everybody's fantasies--football, basketball, hockey (with former L.A. Kings goalie Ron Grahame), baseball (Angels pitching Coach Marcel Lachemann as an aging reliever making a comeback), running and downhill skiing, so far. There are always going to be some whose particular competitive milieu is left unportrayed--chess players come to mind, as do cab drivers and maybe sportswriters--but even the people who helped make the Bud Light spots were impressed.
"You know, that music in the commercial kind of moves me," says Randy Wassem, the 23-year-old Los Angeles insurance agent who plays Croeter. "I heard a couple of Bud Light commercials on the TV last night, and it wasn't the possibility of seeing my mug that made me look . . . they're just kind of effective."
Wassem, a last-minute replacement in the Croeter role for a college player who backed out to preserve his eligibility, played football only in high school, opting for crew and rugby at UCLA. Aside from the rush he sometimes gets watching the commercial ("I had a rough time in high school ball myself, I had to overcome a lot of obstacles--guys ahead of me, that kind of thing"), Wassem says the actual three-day filming was "one of the most pleasant experiences in my life.
"It was fun just putting the pads back on," he says of his trip to Oregon, where most of the commercials in the Bud Light series were filmed in the summer and fall of 1981. "I guess every guy who has ever played football dreams about putting them back on someday."
Jim White, the coach in the basketball spot who tosses his ersatz hero (Marvin Roberts, ex-Utah State, some NBA) a towel and a grudging "nice game," is a 12-year coach at Los Angeles Harbor College who says the commercial is "very accurate."
"That's the way I coach, and maybe even a little rougher. I didn't even have to act," says White. "I must've said 'nice game' about 770,000 times, though . . ."
"I thought they really tried to bring out the inner feelings of what goes through an athlete's mind when he's in a critical situation," says Grahame, an NHL and WHA goaltender for seven years. "Watching it now--and I have a certain bias, of course--I get a little excited, a little bit of a chill. Certain things kind of race through your mind, situations you've been in in your career.
"And, the fact that you're selling a nationally known product," says Grahame. "That has something to do with it."