I remember the Halloween of 1955 distinctly. My older brother, Gregory, went as Davy Crockett on the strength of the fact that he owned a coonskin cap and a buckskin jacket (1955 was the height of the Disney-induced Davy Crockett fad). I went as Davy’s trusty sidekick, Charlie Russell. When you’re only five years old and your brother is nine, you spend a whole lot of time playing “trusty sidekick” whether you want to or not. We stopped by our friend Tommy Ford’s house to add him to our entourage of young frontiersmen, and I remember being astonished to see Tommy’s dad drinking beer and watching the news. Halloween was a kid’s holiday and a time for candy and pumpkins, I reasoned at the time, there’s no beer in Halloween. Boy, was I wrong!
As America’s third-largest brewer, Coors has always fought for retail display space with industry giants Anheuser-Busch and Miller Brewing. This is particularly evident during big beer consumption holidays like Super Bowl Sunday and Memorial Day. In the early 1980s, ex-Schlitz brand manager Gary Naifeh got the idea of creating a new beer holiday for Coors. He believed Halloween represented a new, adult marketing opportunity. As Barbara Wilson, Coors’ director of marketing-eastern region described it, “The feeling was, if we can’t own existing holidays, maybe we should create one of our own.”
Coors launched their first Halloween-dedicated promotion in 1983, using a wholly invented character called BeerWolf in a campaign titled “Turn it Loose with BeerWolf!” If the P-O-P and even costumes for live appearances seem a little cheesy now, you have to keep in mind that Budweiser was making pretty fair gains off a party animal named Spuds Mackenzie. Phil Senes, Coors former manager of consumer promotion, summarizes the time best: “Scrutiny wasn’t as high then as it is today.” Coors had the decency to give the BeerWolf a decent burial after a second run in 1984.
For Halloween 1985, the brewery fielded commercials set in the mythical ‘Silver Bullet Bar.” TV and point-of-sale featured attractive young adults in costumes celebrating the holiday with Coors Light. The idea worked as a theme for the event, but the brand still hadn’t hit on a big idea for an occasion that Coors could own.
Enter Cassandra Peterson, a struggling actress in 1981, when she landed what would prove to be the role of a lifetime at local TV station KHJ in Los Angeles. Peterson was hired that August to be the on-screen hostess of Channel 9’s local Movie Macabre horror flick show. By her mid-September debut she’d managed, with the help of artist/costume designer Robert Redding, to create her professional persona, “Elvira, Mistress of the Dark.” By combining the sex appeal of a funereal goddess with the droll humor of a stand-up comic, Elvira became an instant and enormous cult figure, particularly with teenage and twenty-something young men, who tuned in just to see her do the commercial breaks.
By 1987, Peterson had parlayed Elvira into so many guest star appearances on the popular network TV shows of the time that she came to the attention of Coors. The brewery took the bold step of hiring Peterson as their exclusive Halloween spokesperson, making her the first female celebrity in commercial history to ever endorse a beer. Elvira launched Coors’ Halloween 1986 sales season, appearing in stores as a life-size cardboard standup in her signature slit-to-the-hip, deep decollete black dress, usually surrounded by mass quantities of Coors Beer.
The Elvira standees sold Coors displays in record quantities and stopped in-store floor traffic faster than a busted case of Crisco Oil in aisle six. More importantly, they helped Coors catch the leading edge of what would develop into the monster wave of Halloween entertaining. “We couldn’t keep the displays up at retail,” said Phil Senes. “Consumers, competitors, even the store personnel were taking our Elvira standups out of the stores, either for their basement or to sell at the local flea market. We even went to mini-standups and posters because they weren’t so expensive to replace. We really had a hard time keeping the stores merchandised.” The campaign was a huge hit with consumers and distributors alike, and ran again in 1987 to equally outstanding results.
But the marketing environment shifted in the late 80s, however, when rumors began circulating that Procter & Gamble’s revered “moon and stars” logo was related to devil worship. The more P&G denied this absurd rumor, the more reporting it seemed to get. Coors’ management looked at Procter’s dilemma and figured that if this nonsense could happen to one of the most admired firms in America, it could spill over to a spokesperson who bills herself as the Mistress of the Dark.
Elvira was not renewed for 1988; instead, Coors ran a campaign called “Rocktoberfest” that featured a brand spokesperson surrounded by young women in tight silver lamé outfits. This approach became the proverbial “one step backward,” and Coors returned to using a strong corporate spokesperson in 1989. Movie comic Leslie Nielsen parlayed his bumbling detective roles in promotional spots and P-O-P in “The Phantom of the Fridge” (a search for the missing Coors Light), and was brought back again in 1990 in “The Search for Halloween Headquarters.”
In the midst of these campaigns, however, a groundswell was forming among Coors’ distributors and employees to bring Elvira back. “As long as we had Elvira, we were the preferred beer supplier for Halloween,” said Senes. “We realized we’d made a mistake, so we brought her back.”
Elvira/Peterson starred again in Coors’ Halloween promotions from 1990 to 1995, accumulating a slightly interrupted run of seven years as the face of all things Halloween with the brewer. By 1995, Coors had crowned her “The Queen of Halloween.” Peterson parted amicably after the ‘95 season, but the “Queen of Halloween” title evolved into the brand’s highly popular promotional theme from 1996 to today.
Nowadays, the brand selects a different emerging female star to act as the year’s Halloween spokesperson. Past queens include Pamela Anderson, Jenny McCarthy, Daisy Fuentes, and Selma Hayak, none of whom are likely to be performing Shakespeare in a theater near you, but all of whom look outstanding in tight black clothes.
The brand also introduced a tie-in overlay with St. Jude’s Hospital beginning in 1994 that has been an enormous success. This promotional overlay encourages consumers to donate $1.00 at on- and off-premise locations, and be recognized with their names on paper pumpkins that are then hung on the walls of the account. To date, this approach has raised over $17 million for the charity.
“Coors owns Halloween. Retailers can’t wait to find out who the new queen is,” says Wilson. “It’s much easier to sell when the concept stays constant, while the personality is constantly refreshed.” The brand recently announced that this year’s queen would be the Klimaszewski sisters, known far and wide as the Coors Twins. The twins image will appear on the hood of NASCAR driver Sterling Marlin’s #40 Silver Bullet car for the October 5 Banquet 500 race, as well as in P-O-P that touts their appearance in the October premiere of Scary Movie 3.
Anyone out there got a coonskin cap I could borrow for a night?
Halloween by the Numbers
- 41 million — potential trick-or-treaters in the five-to-14 year-old demographic (5.3 million in costume-crazy California alone)
- $44.00 — estimated average U.S. household expenditure for Halloween in 2002
- $7 billion — amount spent annually on Halloween in the U.S., making it the second-biggest consumer holiday of the year, behind Christmas
- 69% — share of Halloween expenditures of mass merchandisers and discount department stores, meaning grocers take it in the shorts…again!
- $2 billion — amount spent annually on candy, making Halloween the largest candy selling occasion of the year, ahead of Easter (open wide and say “Ouch!”)
- #2 — Halloween is the second-largest occasion for on-premise beer sales, behind St. Patrick’s day. Now that’s really scary!
- $586 million — amount spent annually on decorations, making Halloween the second-largest home decorating occasion, behind Christmas
- 831 million lbs. — total U.S. pumpkin production in 2001. Illinois was the biggest pumpkin producer, with 319 million lbs. grown.