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Japan, Food, and Gender, Part 4: Beer for Him and Her

Posted by Shaun

Alcohol marketing in the US is notoriously sexist, especially when it comes to beer. In America, there's a hard-and-fast stereotype that beer is for men. When alcohol marketers try to target women, as Emily Bryson York and Robert Channick at the Chicago Tribune say companies are trying to do now, they tend to focus on sweet or low-calorie drinks, missing the market of women who like bitter flavors or aren't bound by calorie-related insecurities when they drink. Although plenty of women do drink beer, they generally feature in beer commercials only as the butt of men's jokes or as sexual objects. And Chick Beer, "the only American beer created just for women," (para. 1), while claiming to celebrate "women: independent, smart, fun-loving and self-assured women who love life and embrace all of the possibilities that it has to offer" (para. 6), depicts its own limited image of femininity with its' extremely pink website, cheesy slogan ("Witness the chickness!"), purse-shaped case, and little-black-dress label.
For the sake of full disclosure, I'm not a beer drinker, and American beer marketing is not doing much to change my mind. Let's take a closer look at some beer commercials from the US.

First of all, we have a compilation of Dos Equis ads, starring "The Most Interesting Man in the World."
Whoever this guy is, he can do all these amazing, unbelievable things, and when he announces "I don't always drink beer, but when I do, it's Dos Equis," he's got attractive women at his side, like props to show how cool he is. Why don't we ever see "The Most Interesting Woman in the World?"

Next we have a Miller Lite commercial in which a female bar tender insults her male customer for choosing the wrong light beer and wearing jeans that are too tight. The announcer at the end tells customers to "Man up!" and choose Miller Lite. Stereotype: Men need to draw a bold line between masculinity and femininity and the wrong choice will have them ridiculed, and women are bitches.

Next, we have my favorite. I had some hopes for this commercial because the Youtube video was called something like "Bud Lite together," but my hopes were soon dashed. Here we have a couple of guys coming home with their Bud Lite beer to watch a football game, only to find that the wife/girlfriend has taken over the living room by having her girlfriends over. Rather than try to negotiate like adults, the man tells his wife/girlfriend's friends some gossip she apparently trusted him with, and then all the friends storm out of the room, angry at the wife/girlfriend, and the men get to take over the TV room. Stereotype: Men can't have fun, relax, and "be men," if women are there, and once again, women are bitches. 

This one is my second favorite of the American beer ads I looked at today. Sexy, vinyl-clad aliens land on planet Earth and offer men Bud Lite as a reward in exchange for "schmeplicating" to save the alien species. The men all cheer and run to the alien ladies while their wives/girlfriends roll their eyes, and the announcer tells us that Bud Lite is "a sure sign of a good time." Once the men are gone, the ladies cheer and take out their own 6-packs of Bud Lite. Stereotype: Men have a Pavlovian response to the combination of attractive women and certain brands of beer, and women put up with this. Plus, women and men can't enjoy the same thing together at the same time.

When I came to Japan, I didn't really expect to see anything different when it came to beer ads. Just like the US, Japan has its fair share of sweet and low-calorie drinks obviously marketed to women, but when I saw commercials for Japanese beer, I was amazed. There are women in Japanese beer commercials, and their roles are different from the ones in the American commercials I posted above. To get an idea of what I mean, here's a selection of fairly recent Japanese beer commercials:

First, we have a commercial for Sapporo's 麦とホップ mugi to hoppu "Barely and Hops." It features, notably, a man and a woman eating the same food and drinking the same beer. They seem to be talking about what toppings to eat with their baked potatoes, and the commercial ends with the phrase traditionally said before eating, "Ittadakimasu!." Rather than drinking beer and getting rowdy while watching football with the guys, or trying to impress women, or partying, this commercial focuses on beer as a refreshing beverage to drink with dinner.

This commercial for Suntory: The Premium Malts shows beer at one of the places where it's sold, at the convenience store, and unlike the Miller Lite commercial above, the woman who sells it is friendly and smiling. A man walks into the convenience store and notices that there's a new salesperson, and a new size for his favorite beer at a new price. At home, he takes a drink out of his glass of beer and says "delicious!" The slogan at the end, 帰り道で、冷えてますよ kaerimichi de, hietemasu yo is sort of hard for me to translate. Literally it's "On the way home, [it's] cold," but I'm not sure what arrangement of words would work in a real English advertisement and fit the vibe of the commercial.

This collection of commercials for Suntory All Free is interesting because it's for an alcohol-free and calorie-free beer and the commercials consistently feature a man and a young woman side by side. I don't really understand the story of these commercials, but I think they feature a man and his daughter enjoying some sort of outing together while drinking a beer. The girl says "Hey, papa-" and then a UFO appears, and she says "Oh, it's nothing." The relaxing music and the father-daughter relationship are totally different than the sorts of connections between men and women demonstrated in the American commercials. One thing that confuses me is that the daughter is always seen drinking her beer out of a can while the father is drinking out of a glass, which could be interpreted to mean that they're drinking different beers, but when I saw this beer at my local grocery store, both of their pictures were on the case, so I'll assume they're both drinking the same thing.

While this last commercial, for Suntory's 金麦 kin mugi, "Gold Barley" features a male announcer, all of the actors that appear in the commercial are women. The narrator says the flavor of "Gold Barley" has gotten more delicious, and the text on the screen says "金麦進む kin mugi susumu," "Gold Barley advances." It shows a woman popping the top on the beer can and pouring it into a glass. She's then joined by several other women, and they drink together.

After this commercial came on TV, I told my host mom about how women never appear like this in American beer commercials, and she told me that Japanese men will buy something if they see women enjoying it. I thought that assessment was interesting, but I don't necessarily agree. For example, I recently saw a commercial in which women become ecstatic at the fruit scents of dish soap, and I doubt Japanese men are in a rush to do the dishes because of that. The other reason I think this commercial is targeted at women as much as it might also be targeted at men is the way the women are dressed. They're wearing warm sweaters and comfortable-looking dresses, and the camera focuses on their eyes and their smiles, not their bodies. They look friendly, approachable, and like they're having fun together. I get the feeling that these women are going to have a nice, low-key time hanging out together, and as a woman, that appeals to me.

One of the major differences I see between the American beer commercials and the Japanese ones is that American commercials tend to make you laugh at someone's expense, and they tend to play boys vs. girls, while Japanese beer commercials tend to make characters of both genders smile. This partly stems from the different drinking cultures in Japan and America. Just judging from these commercials alone, beer in America is associated with parties and rowdiness, while in Japan it's associated with refreshment and relaxation. This has honestly changed my perception of beer somewhat while I've been here. It certainly looks refreshing when it's in a clear glass instead of a brown bottle, and when it's being drunk by cute, smiling women instead of leering frat boys or jeering sports fans.

If American alcohol marketers want to appeal to women, perhaps they should look at the less uptight performance of masculinity, the positive presence of women and femininity, and the images of men and women drinking together in Japanese beer ads. Though American beer marketing has had such a long association with promoting a very loud, obnoxious form of masculinity that the quieter Japanese model might get coded as feminine the minute it crossed over to American soil, therefore further gendering the beer market instead of giving it the gender neutrality it seems to have in Japan.

One Response so far.

  1. Anonymous says:

    What a difference between the beer commercials. Japan makes beer seem wholesome. Is there a drinking age in Japan? or is it like Europe where you don't have to attain any specific age to be able to do...I think by giving it an age, we build it up to more than it is...a refreshing drink...(if you like the taste of beer :)) I can't imagine US advertisers dressing up women in full-length wool skirts and long sleeve shirts to sell anything. Makes me embarrassed to be American....our motto always seems to be 'Sex sells'. Me again! :)

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