This must have been an interesting pitch meeting: "We want the guy buying your product to also buy a pornographic magazine. A really nasty one. Then terrible things will happen to him, and he will be humiliated on national TV, and everyone will know that he your consumer is a total deviant."
It may sound like a new Judd Apatow movie (or an old Woody Allen one), but it's actually a commercial for beer specifically Bud Light, made by the brewery that claims "the beer you choose says a lot about you." The ad never aired on TV, and careful viewers will note that all the sexual devices are blurred and the strong language bleeped. It was made to be consumed, as beer is, by people over the age of 21. But, like beer, it is readily available if you know where to look. And again like beer, it can make you laugh. (Go ahead and watch it a couple times. We'll wait.)
The ad, which quietly appeared in February as part of a viral campaign, has attracted little notice thus far, but because it comes from a highly respected American brand, it seems to mark some kind of cultural tipping point, where pornography has soaked so far into the fabric of mainstream culture that it's no longer seen as a stain. The phenomenon, known as porn creep, is also evident in ads from such companies as American Apparel, Carl's Jr. and Quiznos. This is a family website, so you can Google those ads on your own. (See the best and worst Super Bowl ads of 2009.)
But Budweiser is a much bigger, better-known brand. "Why is such a huge company aligning itself with pornography?" asks Michael Solomon, a marketing professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia. "Because Budweiser must have calculated it was worth the risk to alienate some people, if they could reach their core buyers." (Watch TIME's video "Beer Pong Strikes Back.")
As marketers struggle to find ways to make an impression on a population saturated in all kinds of media, the too-hot-for-TV online-only video has become an increasingly common device. And in order to get customers to seek out and recommend the straight-to-YouTube video, marketers often reach for comedy from the appropriateness hinterlands. Especially when trying to reel in young men.
And they're being lauded for it. Last year, Budweiser's advertising agency, DDB in Chicago, won an Emmy for its Internet-only spot "Swear Jar," which depicts office workers having to pay a quarter every time they curse, with the money being used to buy Bud Light. The commercial turns into a bleepfest as the cubicle mates indulge their inner sailors. But is bleeping curse words the same thing as pixelating graphic sexual toys? "Porn is the next logical step," says Solomon.
So far, there hasn't been much pushback. Even anti-pornography activist Donna Rice Hughes was not shocked that Anheuser-Busch, which makes Bud Light, would go there. "The line has gotten really blurred," she says. "There's a whole generation that has been pornified. They don't think it's a big deal. Budweiser's tapping into that." (Read 10 questions with Hugh Hefner.)
But Hughes and other media watchdogs are concerned that marketers and all media are increasingly referencing pornography and pornographic motifs. "Apparently, Anheuser-Busch has decided to associate itself and its brand with something that destroys family and degrades women," says Cathy Rose, a senior fellow at the Family Research Council, a conservative Christian think tank and lobbying group. "I think it's a questionable approach at the very least." She cites Focus on the Family studies that have found that 43% of families say pornography is a problem in their home. And while she acknowledges that the spot has some fun at the porn-consumer's expense (the last joke in the ad is about the porn-buyer's mom finding out what he's purchasing), she says that "many of these people's experiences with pornography is not funny. Some of their families have been devastated by it."
Both Anheuser-Busch and DDB declined to comment for this story. But branding expert Rob Frankel contends that any controversy generated by the video will be regarded as icing on the marketing-strategy cake. "This ad is about a guy who would like a brew and some ass," he says. "That's right in their strike zone."