OPINION: Cowen on ... Budweiser

The US media has always had a peculiarly trigger-happy relationship with the word "hero". It's a term that crops up in New York newspapers with such frequency that I've sometimes wondered if editors get fined for failing to use it in at least one headline each day. It's used of sports stars, animals that find their way home after wandering off for a day or two and people who help grannies across the road. You don't have to do anything particularly courageous to merit the "hero

tag. Any form of minor achievement or kindness is usually enough to qualify.

Which was one of the reasons why I liked the idea for Budweiser's "real American heroes

campaign when it emerged last year. The term was ripe for subversion, and by undercutting it DDB Chicago was opening up a rich vein for parody - the ludicrous pomposity with which Americans view their lives.

Unfortunately, the follow-up to the hugely successful "whassup?

has failed to live up to its potential for two reasons. One of these was beyond the agency's control. The other is not.

The original title for the campaign never had a chance of surviving the creative nervousness that followed 11 September. The genuinely heroic sacrifices made by firefighters and police officers that day restored real meaning to the word - and surrounded it with incredible sensitivity in the US. Budweiser first pulled the ads and then cobbled together an alternative strapline: "Real men of genius.

The trouble is that this phrase doesn't fit the characters parodied - "really bad toupee wearers" aren't men of genius, even in an ironic sense, and so the humour feels strained from the start. Worse, removing the word "American

from the line takes much of the edge from the original idea. It makes this less of an exercise in taking the piss out of the Yanks and more a general comment on human nature which just happens to feature American performers.

This is all the more of a pity, since by strongly yet ironically identifying Bud with the US, the campaign threatened to break down the disconnect that's recently opened up in Anheuser-Busch's advertising. The company knows its American heritage is one of its biggest selling points in markets such as the UK - so continues to run cheesy images of Midwestern shire horses and cornfields alongside more youth credible stuff such as "whassup?

and "lizards". Done well, "heroes

could have successfully married the two strands.

But it's not done well enough - and this can't solely be put down to the enforced changes. In terms of subject matter, the campaign has thus far shied away from the challenge that it's set itself. For whatever reason it doesn't have the nerve to go for America's jugular and so it stays away from stereotypes that are truly emblematic of Bud's country of origin and serves up soft alternatives. Toupee wearers are a safe, unoffensive, global target and nudist colony organisers are too obscure to be effectively parodied. In the UK, where steel-tipped satire is part of the cultural fabric, such half-hearted measures just don't cut it with an audience.

The skill with which the ad has been put together only underlines the missed opportunity. The script for the toupee tribute has some fantastic moments ("It couldn't look phonier with a chin strap"), the singer enunciates the words with hilarious intensity and the backing singers crooning "is it on straight?

at the end is a nice touch. The execution is the work of some real men, or women, of advertising genius but since it's in the service of a creative idea that's lost its nerve, the impact is diluted. There's enough to keep folks entertained, but not to grab their attention the way Budweiser's last two campaigns did.