Bro Culture: Icing on the Social-Marketing Cake?

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Beer pong being set up

Bros of the world, unite! The recent "icing" craze, a drinking game centered on the barely drinkable malt beverage Smirnoff Ice, might seem like the Holy Grail of Internet marketing. After all, the trend did jump from frat houses to websites and blogs, where it went viral — infecting hordes of frat boys and frat-boy wannabes, a.k.a. "bros," causing them to run out and buy the drink. Even the bro-ish czar of social media, Mark Zuckerberg, was recently videotaped icing a co-worker.

So why isn't Diageo, Smirnoff's parent company, smiling?

For starters, the game isn't exactly a celebration of Ice. It's a way bros can humiliate fellow bros. There are only two rules in icing: When presented with a Smirnoff Ice — the girly treacle comes in nine flavors, including watermelon and something called "Black Ice" — a participant must get down on one knee and chug its contents, which are 4.5% alcohol by volume. But if players are wily, they can invoke Rule No. 2 and "ice-block" their assailant by brandishing their own bottle of Ice (hidden, perhaps, in a shoulder holster) and thus force the attacker to drink both.

In recent months, bros have reportedly been icing bros everywhere, from weddings to bar mitzvahs to, according to a commenter on the Baltimore Sun's website, a funeral procession. You can see the sadistic glee on the faces of successful icers on sites like BrosIcingBros, which launched in April and focused on creative and entertaining (read: inappropriate) icing gambits. But the fun ended on June 16 when the site was wiped blank, leaving only the phrase: "We had a good run, bros ..."

Why pull the plug? It's probably not a coincidence that the site shut down the same day Diageo issued the following statement: "The 'icing' phenomenon is counter to Diageo's values, and violates our industry-leading marketing code, of which we are very proud," said the company, which some conspiracy theorists speculated had started the icing trend as a viral-marketing campaign. "Diageo has taken measures to stop this misuse of its Smirnoff Ice brand and marks, and to make it clear that 'icing' does not comply with our marketing code, and was not created or promoted by Diageo, Smirnoff Ice, or anyone associated with Diageo."

But the demise of BrosIcingBros doesn't mean bro culture is coming to an end. The site was merely one in a vast constellation of dude-oriented sites that get millions of page views each month.

What is a bro exactly? UrbanDictionary defines the species as "obnoxious partying males who are often seen at college parties. They usually just stand around holding a red plastic cup waiting for something exciting to happen so they can scream something that demonstrates how much they enjoy partying." Frat boys, in other words.

To help social anthropologists get a better handle on bros, Bros Like This Site serves as a compendium of 122 things bros like. Among the G-rated items: "talking about how wasted they got," "younger chicks," "nipples" and, not surprisingly, "kegs."

The bro is nothing new, of course — just a term to describe raunchy young men. Bros, by any other name, have been around for decades. They predate Animal House and continue to show up in pop culture in MTV series like Jackass and Bromance and in movies like I Love You, Man and The Hangover. The probable etymology of bro: inner-city guys called each other "brother," which was appropriated by Hawaiian dudes as "brah." Some frat boy picked it up in the islands and brought it home as "bro." The term really took off, however, in 2007 when a University of Florida student begged a stun-gun-wielding campus cop, "Don't tase me, bro."

But blame the Internet for turning the bro into a visible and desirable market. Bros tend to be upper-middle class and have disposable income. Consider Tucker Max, whose brotesque antics were popularized on his blog in 2002 and then turned into the first Net-spawned best-selling book, I Hope They Serve Beer in Hell.

Max argues that the Web provided a speakerphone for the dreams and aspirations of young upper-middle-class men, the kind of dreams and aspirations that — back in the olden days — were considered unsavory by the people who run publishing companies, TV networks and movie studios. "Like I'm the first guy to ever sleep with a midget or get drunk and hook up with a fat girl? No, I didn't invent any of this [expletive]," Max says. "Those things have always been there, but they were underrepresented in art because the gatekeepers didn't understand it or they didn't like it."

The popularity of Max's blog — though he never used the word bro — encouraged the growth of copycat sites that celebrated the same kind of beer-guzzling bad-boy behavior. BroBible (the biggest bro site, with about 900,000 monthly users), Bros Like This Site, Brosome, BroDictionary and StatusBro all cater to the upwardly mobile, career-ambitious bro community. It's a community of "tens of millions," estimates BroBible founder Doug Banker.

It's a petri dish–like environment just waiting to spread new germs — exactly the kind of environment, in other words, that marketers crave. "We're constantly getting e-mails for websites and products," says Banker. "It's a great vehicle to unveil new products and new trends."

Ever since Facebook first showed its face seven years ago, marketers have been struggling to crack the code and tap into the exponential growth metrics of social networking. On June 14, the Nielsen Company combined forces with consulting giant McKinsey & Co. and launched a start-up that helps big companies understand how "social media has the potential to transform their business." In the meantime, every big company in the world has grown its own fan page, though it's unclear whether those "fans" can be mobilized to actually buy anything.

"The reason that icing has such viral legs is because it's social to its core," says Sandy Smallens, who oversees marketing and brand sales at social marketing company Oddcast. "You can't ice yourself; you have to ice your friend."

But so far, the results of bro-branding (bronding?) initiatives have been mixed at best. And now, with the icing monster on the loose, it will be interesting to see whether big business reappraises this whole viral thing. "Marketers have lost control to a certain degree," admits Smallens.

Smallens says that regardless of whether the icing fad peters out, companies need to figure out how to get in front of social-network-fueled consumers. But it won't be easy to harness the power of the bro. "The reason memes become memes," he says, "is because no one sees them coming."