Colt 45 is targeting its glory days with the return of its iconic Eighties spokesman Billy Dee Williams.
The Brian’s Song and Star Wars actor served as the malt liquor’s brand ambassador for five years starting in 1986, when Colt 45 was the biggest name in malt liquor. Now, Williams, 78, appears in a new 15-second video, to be released Monday, that teases an upcoming TV, print and online marketing campaign in which he is the star.
When Colt 45, owned by Pabst Brewing Co., contacted him about resurrecting the campaign, Williams thought “how interesting life is,” he said in a phone interview from Amsterdam where he was making an appearance at a science fiction convention. “I suppose that it has always been a part of my life because I put a face on it and a voice to it for so many years.”
The actor also courted controversy in his spokesman role. Critics said the tagline of the Colt 45 ads — that “It works every time” — suggested the beer could be used to get women intoxicated quickly. That tagline remains part of the new ads, too.
Malt liquor’s container size and higher alcohol content, combined with its marketing campaigns, have also been criticized.
It’s got higher alcohol content than other beer, thanks to a process that uses very little hops plus rice and corn to bolster the alcohol in the drink. Colt 45 weighs in at 5.6% alcohol content, while Miller Lite has about 4.2% and Budweiser has 5.1%. Other malt liquors such as Colt 45 High Gravity have 8.5%.
In his ads, Williams holds a 16-ounce can. But malt liquor is also sold in larger sizes, such as 40 ounce bottles, which were made popular in the Nineties when rappers such as Ice Cube served as spokespeople for various brands, including Pabst-produced St. Ides.
Researchers at UCLA and elsewhere have found that malt liquor marketing targets minority consumers including blacks and Hispanics. The 2005 paper titled “Malt Liquor Beers, And The People Who Drink Them, Are Different,” published in the Alcoholism: Clinical & Experimental Research journal, found that malt liquor drinkers in L.A. were more likely to drink more alcohol, be homeless, unemployed and receive public assistance than other types of drinkers.
While Colt 45 has historically targeted African-Americans, “liquor advertising has always targeted men, and it has almost always been about making women, if not drunk, then certainly sexually available,” says branding and communications consultant Tracey Riese.
“The liquor industry generally has been especially — insidiously and I would say shamelessly — effective at targeting their brands at very specific audience segments, and developing messages that tap the deepest aspirations of that audience,” Riese said. “Colt 45 would be no exception: Billy Dee Williams represents suave sex appeal that many men of all races might aspire to.”
Williams comes off as debonair in the new 15-second teaser video, which shows him in Colt 45 ads from the Eighties and today in a darkly lit bar looking dapper in a tan suit with pocket kerchief and ascot scarf and pouring a Colt 45 can into a goblet.
“The world moves fast, but change isn’t always a good thing when you got it right the first time around,” Williams is heard in a voiceover. “Because sometimes a true original doesn’t need to change a thing. It works every time.”
Colt 45 certainly hopes it works this time, too. The brand turned to Williams because he “played a major role in the success of Colt 45,” said Pabst Chief Marketing Officer Dan McHugh in a statement.
The new campaign comes as Colt 45 falls has behind other U.S. malt liquor brands in sales. Its competitors include Steel Reserve, Mickeys and Olde English, all three from MolsonCoors, as well as Hurricane and King Cobra, from Anheuser-Busch InBev.
The malt beer segment, which has experienced mainly flat sales, accounts for about 2% of the total $25 billion-plus retail sales of U.S. domestic beer, according to market research firm IRI.
The top seven malt liquor brands — MillerCoors-owned Steel Reserve is No. 1, Colt 45 comes in No. 6 — sold about $500 million at retail (supermarkets, convenience stores, drugstores) in the 52 weeks preceding Feb. 21, IRI says. In comparison, craft beer sells about $3.5 billion annually at retail.
Williams shrugs off any suggestion that Colt 45 has bad intentions. “You are always going to have people criticizing, in one way or another, for their own personal reason,” Williams said. “But I had never felt that Colt 45 or any beer for that matter was anything that was detrimental to anyone’s well being.”