The smoky bar is packed with a typical after-work crowd. Drinking. Chatting. Big lapels and even bigger glasses. This is the 1970s, baby. One brash, heavyset man, the life of the party, two happy hour heroes hanging on his every word, turns to the camera. His black hair is unkempt, his black tie loosened, his pointed collars fly out of his too-small suit jacket. He holds a stubby bottle of beer in his meaty paw as he introduces himself:
“When Piels came to me to do this, I said, I’m not Bert or Harry, I’m Jimmy Breslin, a writer!”
How did it come to be that a slovenly newspaper reporter would become the star of a beer commercial? In many ways it’s the pinnacle of modern promotion, a hallowed genre that has given the world Spuds MacKenzie and the Clydesdales, Billy Dee Williams and the Swedish Bikini Team, the Wassup guys and the Most Interesting Man in the World. In this era when perhaps one-third of Americans think journalists are the “enemy of the people,” can you imagine one becoming so famous, so universally admired, that a brand would devote millions to him helming their precious beer spot?
Of, course, this was no ordinary writer — this was Jimmy Breslin, pugnacious New York City reporter, a “poetic and profane” journalist who always took the most unique angles whether writing about the deaths of JFK or John Lennon, or the lives of the downtrodden in his very own city. But, Breslin was also a man who wrote his own myths and willed himself into becoming larger than life, making the general public believe things about him that might not have even been true. But that didn’t matter, because one thing was very much true. As he notes in the commercial:
“Beer is not exactly a subject that is unknown to me.”
In the 1970s there really wasn’t craft beer but there very much were regional lagers unlike today. Pearl in Texas, Old Style in the Midwest, Olympia in the Pacific Northwest. Even Coors was a regional beer, mostly available in Colorado and to the west (remember Smokey & the Bandit?)
Likewise there was Piel Bros. Beer which was originally brewed by three German immigrant brothers in the East New York section of Brooklyn starting in the 1880s. The beer was beloved locally, so much so they were able to expand with additional breweries in Bushwick and on Staten Island.
In the 1950s, during the earliest days of beer advertising, the company found success with spots featuring two cartoon characters — the aforementioned Bert and Harry — who were the supposed owners of the brewery. This was really avant garde stuff back then, comedy bits instead of the hard sell commercials of the day.
“We never thought we would see the day that viewers actually enjoyed…