Kill the Clydesdales

Anheuser Busch had been taken over by a Belgian and Brazilian company, InBev, and the fate of the Clydesdales was uncertain. The year before, I shot several Clydesdale commercials for the Super Bowl because the brilliant marketing executive, Bob Lachky, had wanted to establish the Clydesdales’ identity for the unknowing new client. One of the commercials was the most popular commercial in the United States that year, according to Nielsen polls. I had thought their importance was established.

Not so fast, Kowalski.

Lachky, seeing no light at the end of the AB tunnel, took his money and ran. The other AB guys faced an uncertain future under the new owners, who had the reputation of rape and pillage. The ad agency was strangely silent when Clydesdale time approached, but then I got a call from the AB guys and received  bunch of scripts directly from them.


I went through the scripts and there was one terrific (but expensive) one that stood out. I sent my notes then received a call from the agency.

‘Did you get a bunch of scripts from AB.’


‘Did you read them?’

‘Yeah. Is there a problem?’

I told them which one I liked and it turned out to be one of theirs. Obviously, AB was playing some sort of game.

Time goes by and I receive a lame script from the agency. It hadn’t been part of the original package.

‘Where did this come from?’

‘It’s the one the client approved.’

‘What happened to the BIG script? That one was monumental.’

‘The client didn’t like it for religious reasons.’

The new script  involved a baby Clydesdale and a calf, plus a normal Clydesdale and a grown steer. A difficult proposition at best but I was given one day to film.  My EP was in a panic claiming it was impossible. She was right but it was the hand we were dealt.

There was something strange going on as it was the weakest and cheapest Clydesdale idea ever and things were going to get worse.

For some unfathomable reason, the agency had commissioned the Clydesdale trainer before asking me and he went about his business as he saw fit. I guess they had done this in the event that I turned down the (nearly impossible) job. The problem was that the trainer chose a horrible field to train the young animals and we had to film there because the animals couldn’t be trusted with the location I had chosen.

Things get worse.

The shoot day is overcast and drizzly. Normally you cut losses and call a weather day.

Not under new rules.

We all struggle with the shoot, manipulating green screens and HMIs in the hope that we can insert better backgrounds later.

Then anther monster rears its head. The agency shows me a rip that we must cover for their client. This has never happened before and many of the previous Clydesdale commercials depended on ‘lucky accidents’ for their success. There is no room for these happenings here.

I point out problems and solutions to the rip but I am stonewalled. The rip is sacred and must be covered. There is no time for anything else.

A little time goes by and I get the edit. Terrible. Worse than I can imagine, just a literal copy of the rip.

Depression. I can only think that the new AB people have done this to kill the Clydesdales.

Things get worse.

The Wall Street Journal runs an article that the Clydesdales won’t be appearing in this year’s Super Bowl. The commercial tested so badly that the client won’t run it.  Rumor has it that Lachky planted the article.

The agency creative director, an old, old friend, calls and asks me what the problem is. I tell him the circumstances and he asks me how to fix the spot. I’m traveling to New York and stop in Chicago to meet him.  I’ve scribbled a storyboard on the plane with some script notes. We meet. He looks at the board.

Huge smile.

‘Why didn’t we do this last time?’

I defend the agency by asserting that the client had insisted on filming the rip. The guys (and girl) are there so that’s why I lied.

‘What should we do?’


The CD leaves and we discuss a plan. The agency has no money. I say I’ll reshoot and we’ll work out the dough later. There’s no time to quibble.

I reshoot the spot that weekend using the two days that should have been specced in the first place.  The trainer bitches at my new location but he toes the line.  The agency retests the spot in a strange manner using the internet and the new results have the client reconsider Super Bowl time.  They can only get the fourth quarter and that means that the spot cannot win the USA Today Super Bowl Poll.

The spot finishes fourth, a miracle, but…

In the post Super Bowl polls, the spot is a monstrous winner, capturing the public’s fantasies above all others. Remarks like loyalty, friendship, tradition come from their comments, everything the Clydesdales have stood for. These ratings are ten times higher than any other commercial.

Huge hit.

The reshoot money? I’m still waiting…and waiting…and waiting.

The success of the commercial didn’t save the agency, however, as they lost the business. The Clydesdales became bit players in Bud advertising but made a comeback a few years later.


InBev pillaged the company after takeover, cutting jobs, benefits, real estate, ingredients, things that they would not be able to legally do in Belgium. They treated the U S of A as a third (fourth) world nation for profit.  Sales plummeted but profits rose.

Go figure.

The final insult was to use AMERICA on the labels. They should  have spelled it AMERIKA.  The beer is made here but the profits leave the country.  Budweiser is part of a Belgian/Brazil consortium.  Ironically, Belgian beer is fantastic.  At one iteration of my restaurant I had a Belgian sommelier that had a brilliant slate of Belgian beers.  I guess there is some sort of irony here.

AB has gone from a memorable, family run business to just another global money grab.  I have great memories of my experiences with them, Lachky, McDonough, Raorty, even August Busch IV, and the pride with which they did things, Busch, Bud Light, Bud, Michelob.  Now they are gone, AB just a commodity for a bunch of funny talking businessmen.

At one time you could say, ‘Let’s have a Bud.’  You could never say that for any other beer.

No more.