The following is an exercise in semiotic analysis and thus takes a few analytical leaps. However, I am posting it partially for debate, critique and further discussion so I might improve such analysis in the future.
Pabst Brewing Company’s signature beer, Pabst Blue Ribbon (PBR), in contrast to its rival Budweiser, exudes nostalgia for days gone by. Its graphics, name and history are showcased on the cans, which is, by far, its most popular form of distribution, and signal not only a rich history, but one originating in the middle America of blue collar workers and farmers and a tradition folksy and provincial. The can itself, its color, graphic design and text, all echo not just a love for Americana, but for an Americana that is rural, natural and unrefined. Perhaps it is this simple, down-to-earth nostalgia that has captivated the hipster and “bourgeois bohemian” communities, construing its imagery as ironic, while at the same time secretly experiencing a sense of home.
It should first be noted that the container itself manifests a blue collar and lower class mindset. The 12 ounce can of beer is associated more with American and local breweries than its European counterparts. Here is a beer that is distinctly populist, mundane and accessible. Cans do not require a special bottle opener, or even a church key, but can be accessed with the flick of the wrist. Nor are its contents served by bartenders as other beers on draught are. If a person can open up a can of soda as a youth, he can easily avail himself of a can of beer as an adult.
The can’s shape evinces equality, whereas a bottle with its particular and distinctively elongated neck and body automatically distinguishes it from others, creating a kind of hierarchy or class to the beverage. The can, by contrast, on all sides, is regular, democratic, durable and transportable, all hallmarks of the American dream and Manifest Destiny. Cans never shatter, but endure. Cans can be carried thousands of miles, barely effecting their pressure. Cans are also a sign of progress and the modern era, an innovation in technology that allows for pressurized sealing and freshness. It is born out of 20th century technology while bottles or growlers hearken back to older modes of containment and transport.
Certainly competitors of PBR, from large companies like Budweiser, an important competitor for PBR, to smaller microbreweries like Butternut Beer & Ale, have appropriated the can as the epitome of real, rural, inexpensive and folksy “American” Beer. With all, the can conveys a feeling of homeliness and acts as a prosaic vessel, a television rather than a movie theater. No pretension or pomp need accompany it.
However, if the can universally represents the common man and American innovation, there are more specifically embedded signs that distinguish PBR’s particular appropriation of folksy Americana. The colors of the can are obviously patriotic. Red, white and blue are on both sides of the can, with each color of equal prominence. Competitor Budweiser similarly invokes American colors in its American made beer, but more subtly. Both brands lay out the design of their cans in a similar fashion, containing an emblem, a qualifying statement of some sort and their logo. Budweiser’s design is regal, with an elaborate and proud blue Anheuser Busch crest and a refined and elegant script that describes the beverage.
The specific signs employed by PBR, however, convey a more earthy and honest feeling than its more widely distributed competitor. The background of the can’s design forms a rectangle with a diagonal red slash, reminiscent of both a crest and the Confederate flag – an indication of something created in a prestigious and historically valued tradition, but also homegrown. Placed squarely inside this graphic pennant is a pedestrian blue ribbon, which, in contrast to Budweiser’s elaborate seal, resonates with rural America and the ordinary man. Blue tibbons are awarded to livestock at state and county fairs.They produce a feeling of nostalgia for hometowns and its parades. It transports one back to the celebrations of his youth. The cartoon-like and more iconographic design of the ribbon, bordered with silver, rather than being rendered realistically, further invokes simplicity and humility. It could have been drawn by a child. This ribbon represents a time and place that has to some extent disappeared in the complex modern world. It, like most iconic imagery, also suggests a level of playfulness and, unlike the elaborate eagles and crests of its competitors, that this is a beer that does not take itself too seriously and is without pretension. At the same time, the border of hops, barley and wheat invokes its natural ingredients sprung from the earth and the wheat fields of middle America. This conveys a localized, middle American patriotism, excluding the east and west coasts where wheat fields lack any presence.
This playfulness and specific homage to the heartland of America continues into the words and fonts used to express them. Here a balance is struck on the can with the name Pabst, like the ribbon itself, being a simple, elementary, cartoon-like and childlike script. This cursive font imbues a hint of class, but one rudimentary and accessible, without affectation, but with distinction. The block lettering of Blue Ribbon, instead seems rustic and western, a font that might appear on a barn door and a town’s street signs. The serifs of each letter even recalls the font used stereotypically in western films. Beer, by contrast, is almost indistinguishable in terms of font with a similar font used for factual information about the can itself. That it is beer is less important than the tradition of the homespun Pabst Blue Ribbon. This sentimentality supersedes even the beverage itself.
That this Midwestern tradition takes precedence is revealed perhaps most clearly in the fanciest of the font choices that describes the beer. That the description is displayed in this manner is not singular. Budweiser also isolates its most embellished cursive for description, but PBR distinguishes its origins in the Midwest, highlighting both Original and Established in Milwaukee 1844 in red.
It is the tradition of a bygone era in middle America that is emphasized in the creation of this beer. PBR is not meant to be an innovative brew, but to have its origins displayed prominently as one of the first of American breweries, born out of the heartland. The word Original also highlights the concepts of “origin” itself and a return to middle America rather than the traditions of Europe or the East and West coasts. This is affirmed in the text itself, which places the origins of the product in “nature” itself. Nature’s choicest products provide its prized flavor, states the can. It is nature, not any man or technology that dictates the creation of PBR. The brewers do not usurp the land, instead, the land’s bounty is used by these beer makers. Again, feelings of Manifest Destiny are recalled. It is the right of these Midwestern explorers to take the land and make their beer. The beer was provided to them, like the United States itself, by Nature and perhaps even God.
Still, this American rite is transient and reminiscent of perhaps a faded glory. Two specific dates age this beverage as a tradition rather than something new and innovative. The aforementioned date of invention is counterbalanced by the phrase, again in cursive, that the beer was Selected America’s Best in 1893. This secondary date is of primary importance in placing the beer squarely in the heartland of the past without affiliation to present American innovation. That this beer was selected America’s best during the Chicago World’s Fair automatically places it along with innovations that have become hallmarks of Americana: the electric light, the ferris wheel, Quaker Oats, Cracker Jack, Hershey’s Chocolate and ragtime music. There is nothing digital in this world. Instead, there arose those turn-of-the-century innovations that would become establishments in every suburban home and a cornerstone of the American dream. PBR was present then as America’s beer and has not changed since. Like Cracker Jack and Hershey’s chocolate, some things must remain “original” when the rest of the world changes so quickly.
Perhaps this is exactly why the hipster culture, so omnipresent in New York City and other centers of the current American bourgeoisie, flock so steadily to this simple and traditional beer rather than its competitors. A transient and nostalgic culture, hipsters reared in suburbia congregate in urban centers, but do not foresake their pasts. They look fondly upon the forgotten eras and remnants of bohemianism in the 1960’s and 1970’s when the world was less obsessed with consumerism. At the same time, they are conscious of the fact that this world is long gone, that it can never be resurrected. Their nostalgia is mitigated by cynicism and their acute awareness of this is revealed in every aspect of their style, from designer flannel to elaborate and expensive Converse sneakers. Perhaps no better beverage then is suited for this particular disaffected youth. Invoking so strongly a feeling of nostalgia for a non-existent, simpler America that predates our notions of consumerism, it can be drunk with a certain feeling of longing for something that simply can no longer be achieved. There will never be a World’s Fair for the modern hipster, for he lives in interconnected global economic markets. However, that this is so broadly advertised and displayed on the can adds to an ironic consumption. Like the hipster himself, the can of PBR is the product of a large corporation, distributed nationally, with no connection to home. Its feelings of American nostalgia are exaggerated and adolescent, almost too simple. It is consumed ironically by the hipster. He has an acute awareness that he would not want to live fully in that bygone world and that he has moved beyond it, particularly in terms of economic wealth, where consumerism has superseded idealism. So, the hipster may drink the can of PBR partially as a lark, seeing it as hokey, but, like the can itself, consumes it with a touch of wistfulness, yearning for the Americana that is quickly fading from the American consciousness. Perhaps as he downs his cheap $3 can of PBR, he can recapture past memories and generations.