Photo: Coors Light

There’s currently a beer commercial known as “the bra ad.” It shows a woman dressed in office clothes returning to her apartment, kicking off her heels, opening her fridge, and cracking open a Coors Light before unhooking her bra and throwing it onto her couch. The on-screen text proclaims Coors Light “the official beer of being done wearing a bra.”

I can admit, I felt seen by this ad. My appreciation surprised even me, not just because I like to think I’m skeptical of slick marketing campaigns, but because beer ads typically follow the same cookie-cutter script: A racially diverse and good-looking group of able-bodied 20-somethings party on a beach or backyard barbecue. A football or Frisbee sails overhead as neat hands grab frosty cans from an ice-filled cooler. We hear the crunch of ice, the crack of a can, lather, rinse, repeat.

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The “bra ad,” one of four 30-second spots in Coors Light’s new digital “Made to Chill” campaign was deliberately designed to upset this status quo. And it worked. I loved it.

Anyone who’s ever worn an underwire bra knows the “unhooked” feeling; even if you never have, you can intuit the relief, both physical and psychic. For the majority of people generally targeted by beer ads—which is to say men—the equivalent would be something like… going commando in your basement? Unlacing your dress shoes? But neither boxers nor shoes carry the same cultural weight as a bra does. Which was why my first reaction to the commercial was happy identification: “Hey, I know what that feels like!” But the more I considered the ad and responded to questions about it from my male colleagues in the beer world, the more I realized this ad represents much more than just a winking woman-to-woman in-joke.

Historically, women have been the objects, not subjects, of beer marketing. From the happy mid-century housewives who know just which beer brand to serve their husbands to the iconic 1990s’ Bud Girls, women are a part of beer insofar as they convince men to drink it. Whether they might want to purchase and consume beer themselves was irrelevant. And still not much has changed, even as the 21st century is well underway. With fits and starts, the world’s largest beer companies have alternately ignored women or brewed ill-advised, feminine beers for them.

When women are depicted drinking beer in commercials, it’s in social settings. I always read their beer drinking as a means to an end: to appear easy-going, to join in, to look cute to the men who are observing the fun. Women are hardly ever depicted enjoying beer together, without men, on their own terms, as an end in itself. In fact, I can’t recall a single instance of this in advertising—until the Coors Light bra ad.

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“We certainly had conversations about [the ad] because it is so different: Not only is it a female led spot but she’s having a moment alone. We thought it was most important to recognize real moments, what people are actually doing,” Coors Light marketing manager Chelsea Parker tells The Takeout. “Millennials are now being called the burnout generation. They’re always on, either on social media or out socially or watching the 24-hour news cycle. So they’re concentrating on turning things off. ‘Made to Chill’ is about the need to tune things out, to hit the reset button.”

Watching a woman drink beer at the end of the day for her own enjoyment should not feel radical. And yet. I watched the clip a few more times, noting richer details each time. The Band-Aid covering the blister on the woman’s heel—that shows me someone who’s actually worn heels had a hand in making this commercial. (MillerCoors does have a woman in the role of chief marketing officer, a company first.) The mirror on the wall momentarily reflects the woman’s face—but she doesn’t check to see how she looks.

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And finally, her tossing aside the bra. Bras are synonymous with discomfort for many women, but they also stand in for social expectations of how women present themselves. Bras make women polished and attractive; not wearing one is still mostly an act of rebellion or rejection of the status quo. This woman comes home to drink a beer as she simultaneously becomes less socially “presentable.” Taking off her bra is for her. The beer is for her, because she wants one.

This is where I temper my praise, acknowledging the commercial is by no means some radical feminist rallying cry. The woman in question is white, thin, conventionally attractive, and by the looks of her apartment, well-off. The goal of the ad is to get us to buy a specific mass-made product. This is capitalism, make no mistake, even when it’s capitalism that feels kind of good.

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A few days after this ad debuted, I was a guest on a radio show and podcast called the Beer Temple Insiders Roundtable, a weekly show that brings together a rotating cast of beer-industry people to talk shop. I was the only woman on that particular episode, which is not uncommon in my experience as a woman covering the beer industry. (It’s more remarkable when I’m not the only woman on a panel or quoted in an article.) So when the topic of the Coors Light bra ad came up, I could almost feel the heads in the room swivel toward me. The host ceded the floor with something like: “We don’t really know how to feel about this.” Was the ad good? Sexist? Sexy? Kate, care to weigh in?

This is not uncommon when you’re any sort of minority in your field. While I’ve very seldom encountered outright hostility for being a woman writing about beer, I feel more often that I carry the burden of speaking for many voices, not just my own. What do women think about this? How would women see this product or beer name or marketing decision? My answers must always be calculated and thoughtful, because I know they will never be ascribed to only me.

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So with consideration, I told the radio show guests briefly what I’ve outlined here: I felt acknowledged by this ad. That woman could be me, and there she is, drinking a beer for no other reason than because she wants to. Yes, it’s a mass-market beer trying to ingratiate itself to women so that we will spend the 80 cents we make to a man’s dollar on that specific product. But being marketed to is a step up from being ignored wholesale. Maybe it’s a stepping stone, an indication that women are in advertising and brewing company boardrooms, wielding decision-making power and putting women at the center of beer ads as consumers, not trophies. It’s a small gain, and it’s not revolutionary. The woman in this ad isn’t burning her bra, just taking it off. Maybe someday, she won’t be wearing one at all.

Another guest on the show then asked if the ad wasn’t pandering. I’ve thought about this since, and I guess my answer is that if it is, at least women are now worthy of being pandered to by beer companies.

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