You won't see a frog hawking Pabst Blue Ribbon during the Super Bowl. Nor will you see a can of PBR nestled next to the barely clad breasts of a spring-breaking co-ed. Though this blue collar brewski's hoppy roots have been firmly wound around the ankles of the working man since 1884, another audience adopted this inexpensive light beer in the early 2000s—hip urbanites.
From New York to Portland, Ore., to Los Angeles, PBR embraced this new demographic by using subtle marketing tools—like sponsoring open bars and alley cat bike races—to target an audience weary of mainstream advertising. Now, seven years after the beer first started making its grass-roots comeback, the brew has become synonymous with alternative culture—smoke-hazed bars, tattooed dudes with ironic mustaches, indie bands and bike messenger gangs. PBR's most recent campaign to capture the hearts of urban tastemakers is an annual art contest in which unknown artists submit PBR-inspired work and the winning submissions are turned into murals across the country. One of the cities PBR chose to showcase the 2008 contest winners was Boise.
"We did murals in Seattle, Boise, Grand Rapids, Kansas City, Atlanta, Minneapolis, and also we're doing some in Madison, Wis.," explained Keith Abrams, account executive at New York City-based Colossal Media, the firm that painted the murals.
This past spring, Abrams and Colossal Media operations director Jon Airis hopped on a plane to Boise to do some market research--they hit the bars.
"Pabst gave us a list of their biggest accounts in each market, so we would go to those bars and hang out. Pretty much, we narrowed it down to those bars that we would want to hang out at," said Airis. After the duo chatted up some service industry folk and caught a show at Neurolux, they settled on a few choice locations that they felt coincided with PBR's "creative and artistic demographic." But before they could start painting, they had to persuade local business owners to let them use the sides of their buildings for what is essentially a PBR ad campaign.
"They contacted me a while back and discussed with me using the back wall of the Linen Building," said David Hale, the building's owner. "There were a couple of reasons they contacted me: I've got good exposure on Main Street from the back, it's a pretty prominent building in the Linen District. Then the whole Modern Art event really helped play into this."
In fact, the three-part mural on the Linen Building was finished the night of the Modern Hotel's highly attended event. That same week, Colossal Media's team of artists also painted three other huge, colorful murals around downtown: one on the Davies Reid building, one on the side of Neurolux and one on the side of Mack & Charlies, facing the Addie's parking lot. Though the murals are astonishingly exact replicas of the original artwork--and two of the pieces on the Linen Building were created by Boise artists Kelly Knopp and Sivita Justice--there has still been a general sense of unease regarding the tawdry coupling of public art and advertising.
"I was a little bit reluctant at first simply because I didn't know what it was that was going to go on the building and the fact that it was Pabst Blue Ribbon," explained Hale. "I ended up feeling comfortable with it because I have since donated what they paid me to an arts organization here in town, ArtFaire."
Even after business owners jumped on board, Colossal Media still had to obtain zoning certificates from the city before artists could set up their scaffolds and dripping paint cans and get to work.
"We ran into a few roadblocks because two of the walls that we painted are in a historical district," said Abrams. "But we worked with the City of Boise, and they were flexible and allowed us to go ahead and do it. For the most part, all business owners in Boise were super excited about the project and supportive and willing to help us help them get the proper permits."
But Sarah Schafer, the city's design review and historic preservation manager, remembers the process going down slightly less organically.
"They had not submitted zoning certificates prior to the murals going up," said Schafer. "We received the zoning certificate request the same day the murals were being painted for most of them."
According to Schafer, the city allows murals to be painted on downtown buildings as long as artists obtain a zoning certificate and the murals don't have accompanying text. Two strikes against the PBR campaign.
"Because these are actually signs, signage for PBR, they wouldn't be allowed by code typically. We don't allow off-premise signs," said Schafer. "When they initially called, they hadn't told me anything about it being a design competition for any specific representative. They just said, 'Hey we're doing murals, what do you guys do for those?'"
But even after these permitting mishaps, the City of Boise still allowed the project to proceed—under the stipulation that the murals be removed after 90 days. Colossal Media agreed and will be back in Boise at the end of August with an ample supply of paint thinner to take down the art.
"All of the walls except for one were already painted brick," said Abrams. "So, the one that was just bare brick will be a little bit more intensive [to remove], but we do this stuff a lot so it shouldn't be a big deal."
Though Schafer views some of the PBR murals—like the one in the Neurolux alleyway—as artistic flourishes, she's less than thrilled about the mural painted on the side of Davies Reid and hopes it will be removed without damaging the building.
"Hopefully, this is not something that ever happens again, especially for the historic buildings in the area," said Schafer. "The Davies Reid building is one we have been getting ready to go on as landmark status. Painting a mural on the side of a landmark building is not appropriate."
But since the Linen Building isn't considered a historic landmark, Hale has a different plan for the mural. He's going to keep it up—but with the PBR logos obscured by local artists.
"I don't necessarily have a problem with [the mural] because I think it's a bit more tastefully done than possibly some other beer-related ads that we might have all seen," said Hale. "I was a little hesitant up front because I didn't know what it was going to look like. But the way I look at it now is, it's art ... people stop by the building all the time just to look at it."
See the PBR murals at the following locations: The Linen Building, 1402 W. Grove St.; Neurolux, 111 N. 11th St.; Davies Reid, 515 W. Idaho St.; Mack and Charlies, 507 Main St.