Malt Liquor: A Historical Examination
The other day I made a joke to one of my coworkers about 40’s and she had no idea what I was talking about. I always think really hard when someone doesn’t get my jokes, and it made me realize that the 40-ounce beverage, and malt liquor in general, has somehow become a distinctly black phenomenon that is difficult for foreigners to fully grasp. But how did American black folks become the key market for consumption of this drink? Judging by the abundance of advertising that I’ve collected during an insomnia-fueled investigation into this topic, through good old-fashioned marketing, that’s how!
Malt liquor can have up to twice the alcohol content of regular beer (between 6 and 10%) and is usually cheaper, too. It was originally marketed towards middle class whites by Goetz and called “Country Club Malt Liquor.”
The smartest marketing move was to highlight the kick that the extra alcohol content in malt liquor promised, so brands like Colt 45 presented themselves as potent virility enhancers, meaning it was only a matter of time before black folks got involved. Not only did we add legitimacy to the image of malt liquor as a rough n’ tumble beverage, but the post-Civil Rights Movement purchasing power of black folks presented a great time to create a more complete image for the stuff (in case you’re wondering, this is also around the time that menthol cigarettes got a little blacker in the minds of advertising executives). Check out the black gun-slingin’ cowboy in this commercial – “it goes with the gun” is a harbinger of things to come that is so very hard to ignore.
Is it just me or does it seem like dude would rather be doing Shakespeare?
It was clearly time to marry the two worlds by featuring a personality popular with all of us. Well look what we have here…
I find this commercial particularly unthinkable. What is Redd Foxx doing driving in the snow to meet up with some white man to drink brews?
Malt liquor was still being targeted to everyone and anyone in many ads, but black folks and those who wished to be like them simply could not ignore the pop-lockin’ in this Schlitz ad! I have to admit that the “Where’s Waldo?” bodyshirts and criss-crossed suspenders make me wanna crack open a cold one and pour out a little for Fred “Re-Run” Berry.
Of course, with the success of plain old malt liquor came extensions of this tasty and potent beverage, such as Champale, which was one of the first malt liquors targeted directly at black folks. If you haven’t tried it, it’s got that Cool Ranch Dorito thing going on – you can’t help but drink more because it leaves a nasty taste in your mouth. The effort at customizing the message for black America was rather impressive:
A former pro football player who starred in movies like Black Ceasar, Hell Up In Harlem, and The Legend of Nigger Charley? Wouldn’t they be crazy not to wrap Fred Williamson’s hand around a can of King Cobra Malt Liquor in a commercial? Brace yourself for homegirl singing the hook halfway through this ad.
But then came Billy Dee Williams. Mmmmmmm Billy Dee. If anyone ever said “I’m a wife-beatin’ sex machine who uses more hair products than you do” with his very presence, it was him. And he let us know that it works every time – not most of the time or some of the time, but every time. Pretty accurate, actually, because if you can get a woman drunk off of malt liquor “do you want my arm to fall off?” is kind of a rhetorical question (that was for my oldhead movie buffs).
By the 90’s, hip-hop was a legitimate art form (and advertising vehicle). As much as we all hated on MC Hammer for doing Pepsi ads, by the middle of the decade all of our favorite rappers were doing endorsements, and St Ides had it all on lock. It’s flashback time – how many of these commercials do you remember as if they were actual hits?
I love O’Shea, but how did he go from this to Are We There Yet?
If the 40-ounce is good for anything, it’s for pouring a little out, and now is the right moment.
I wasn’t even old enough to drink and I knew that by heart. Full song here.
In recent years malt liquor is mostly for teenagers, alcoholics needing a fix, and broke people, even though its success still depends on the black (and now Latino) community. Due to negative press from the hip-hop and scientific communities (a 40 actually contains as much alcohol as five shots of hard liquor), it just isn’t very “cool” to guzzle such swill. The advertising for malt liquor proper has all but disappeared, and my guess is that’s because the stuff pretty much sells itself (as anything with the nickname “liquid crack” ought to). The $1.00 – $3.00 price can’t be beat, and with brand extensions like the colorful fruit-flavored “St Ides Special Brew,” why bother advertising when the price and bright colors sell the product on it’s own?