Once upon a time, getting urban youths hooked on your product was a fairly straightforward affair: Hire a popular black icon to be your pitchman. Get some half-nekkid models to gyrate around him. Throw up a few billboards in black neighborhoods, run some ads in the black press and black radio, etc.
It worked a generation ago in the case of menthol cigarettes, which, with the help of the black press and black cultural institutions such as the Newport Jazz Festival, is a brand still disproportionately smoked by black people. And of course it worked for other cheap liquor products that stained the legacy of black icons such as Billy Dee Williams.
So in many ways, the sleaze oozing out of the new marketing campaign for the new, candy-colored malt liquor product line Blast by Colt 45 — minstrelsy courtesy of the rapper Snoop Dogg — is more of the usual, with technology making it possible for the company to reach new lows in product placement.
But new media have also given us some new tools with which to fight back.
When Paul Porter, founder of the media-watchdog group Industry Ears, got wind of the campaign to flood the market with Blast, he did some blasting of his own.
He used his website to post video excerpts from a webinar to liquor distributors that pull back the curtain on the company's strategy to take the Colt 45 to a "whole new generation," "open up a new set of usage occasions" and "attract a new consumer to this emerging segment."
In the video, a Pabst marketing exec explains how to target the barely legal crowd: "We're clearly communicating its flavor, its 12 percent alcohol content." (Blast flavors include grape, blueberry-pomegranate and strawberry-lemonade — and, yes, raspberry-watermelon.)
The Pabst rep explains the deal worked out with Snoop Dogg, whose image and voice will be the face of the product. As part of the endorsement deal, Snoop agreed to send out product placement messages on Facebook and to his millions of Twitter followers. Snoop will mention the new product during radio and television appearances and on tour. He also agreed to mention the product in a song — a promise he honored in his new single with T-Pain.
Then the Pabst rep explains the company's retail strategy. Ads will appear in national print media that includes URB, XXL, Complex, Vibe and Spin in their March, April and May 2011 issues. Throughout February, he explains, branded refrigerators will be placed in radio stations "to encourage discussion about the brand." Then they will have stickers, posters and single-serve coolers made with Blast branding. And then, of course, there's the retail price: $2.49.
Despite clear evidence to the contrary in the video, Pabst told the New York Times that the company was targeting older customers and that Snoop wasn't endorsing the product just for money. "That's just him being a true partner and saying I'm not just an endorser," Pabst executive Daren Metropoulos told the New York Times. "Whether he's putting it in his songs or having his posse drinking it, it's part of his lifestyle."
Right. As if pushing-40 rappers — even ones who like to wear pigtails and hair ballies — enjoy sitting around drinking neon-colored $2 mixed drinks from a bottle.
Porter of Industry Ears took to Twitter to alert black performers who had unwittingly participated in the Blast campaign. New York rapper Talib Kweli, for instance, responded by tweeting that Blast would no longer be part of an April 20 show in Lawrence, Kan., Porter said. Porter has given interviews to CNN and radio stations around the country.
He also set up a Facebook page, Smarter Then "Blast" by Colt 45. But there was one hiccup: Pabst sicced its legal dogs on Facebook, claiming copyright violations. So Facebook removed the images of the product from the Facebook page. Porter is appealing.
"Seeing the distributor video makes it clear that hip-hop and underage youth are the target," Porter, who tweets as Industry Ears, told The Root. And if the marketing video is removed from YouTube, he said he would be happy to send it to anyone.
"It's quite obvious in this case, the real gangstas are the execs of Colt 45."
Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing editor to The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Natalie Hopkinson is a Washington, D.C.-based author whose current projects deal with the arts, gender and public life. She is the author of Go-Go Live: The Musical Life and Death of a Chocolate City. Follow her on Twitter.