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When Ads Go Strange: Mike's Hard Lemonade Redefines a Bad Day


How do you keep a lemony drink from appearing too girly? Stir in an industrial accident.

The commercial opens: Armored in a hard hat and saddled with a tool belt, a burly construction worker sidles along a high beam.

Then, suddenly, letting out a sharp cry of terror, he falls off the beam and into a big pile of debris with a horrible bang.

Standing up, we see that the man is now violently skewered, through and through, with a long rod of terrible metal. A concerned co-worker steps forward: "Maybe," he says, with a worried look, "we should get it looked at."

"Or, maybe," responds the maimed construction worker, brushing off his buddy, "we should get a delicious Mike's Hard Lemonade instead!"

As the commercial comes to a close, the audience watches the two men, now at a bar, use the rod -- still harpooning the injured construction worker -- as a bottle opener.

"A hard day calls for a hard lemonade," an announcer says, in a deep, gruff baritone. "Make it Mike's."

Welcome to the ad campaign for Mike's Hard Lemonade: Commercials for guys, by guys.

Mike's Hard Lemonade, founded by British Columbia winery owner Anthony von Mandl, kicked off in Canada in 1996 and launched in the US just a few years later.

The company markets varieties of its malt beverage: Hard Lemonade, Hard Punch (bottles emblazed with a clenched fist), Harder Lemonade ("for those looking for a swift kick"), Hard Tea, Margarita ("a taste fiesta just waiting to happen"), and malt cocktails.

The creative team behind the ad campaign, at now-defunct NYC-based ad agency Cliff Freeman & Partners, tried to take the idea of a "hard day" at work to the extreme, says Scott Vitrone, who worked on the campaign as an art director in 2000.

More specifically, he tells us, the point was to market the spiked lemonade as a drink that men would feel comfortable ordering at the local bar with their buddies.

"There was definitely a conscious effort to keep it guy-centric, living in that man's world, because of the type of product it was," Vitrone tells us. "Those kinds of drinks can be perceived as kind of feminine."

Vitrone adds: "The drink falls into the wine cooler category, which the company didn't want to be. Those products tend to be fads, and fall out of favor quickly. So we wanted to handle the product like a beer."

The company figured, says Vitrone, that it would automatically lure female drinkers by default given the nature of the product. But, if it could also attract men to the drink, and treat it like a beer, it might prove more sustainable.

(Mike's Hard Lemonade didn't respond to interview requests for this article.)

William Gelner, who worked on the campaign as an associate creative director and copywriter, agrees that the biggest concern was that the drink would be perceived as some "girly wine cooler."

"That would be the death of it," says Gelner, now the executive creative director at 180 LA. "If you launch a product like this and you're a guy, drinking it at a bar, and somebody tells you it's a girl's drink, then you are done. You are cooked. The brand will be dead before it even gets going. We wanted to make sure that didn't happen."

The creative team -- inspired by Monty Python's legendary, gruesomely hilarious Black Knight sketch -- engineered a series of commercials grounded in humor they figured men across the country might appreciate, which incorporated quick bursts of violent shock value.

There's a lumberjack who cuts off his own foot -- "My wife just bought me those boots yesterday!" -- and a killer whale that bites off the hand of a very unlucky aquarium employee -- "I've never seen him do that trick before," says his co-worker. "Does it sting?"

The ads end with maimed workers, laughing with friends, as they toast the end of another "hard day" with a chilled bottle of Mike's Hard Lemonade.

After the first set of commercials, Mike's Hard Lemonade hired Cliff Freeman to put together another campaign, which, as Vitrone points out, just became a lot "weirder."

"We were trying to move that idea of having a "hard day" into an absurd place," he says, which ended up involving commercials with a more sci-fi bent: office workers with fanged, snarling second heads growing out of their necks and ape-like creatures parachuting into parking lots to abduct men's girlfriends.

Looking back now, Vitrone thinks the first round of commercials ultimately worked better.

"The first commercials were absurd, but they were grounded in reality," he says. "When we stretched into that absurd world, with second heads and albino apes, it just went to a different place. It didn't resonate as well for me."

Of course, the tension here is that, regardless of how aggressively the ad team marketed the product as a drink for hard-charging tough guys, at the end of the day, the product is just lemonade, iced tea, and punch.

"That is what we were up against," says Vitrone. "It's why we pushed so hard on the manly angle."

Given the violence in the commercials, there was also some controversy that ensued from the spots, remembers Vitrone, who today works as the co-chief creative officer at Young & Rubicam.

"You never want to deliberately set out to offend people," he says. "We didn't approach it that way. We wanted to entertain and give the brand a personality."

Gelner is quick to point out that the commercials also ran late at night, although he concedes that not everybody appreciated the industrial accident theme.

"It was all done tongue-in-cheek," the ad man says. "It was a big joke."

"But you are bound to offend someone when you're doing work like that," he says. "You have to know that going in: That's the kind of campaign that will cause conversation."
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