Monday, December 1, 2014

The Chief Oshkosh Red Lager Billboards

In the summer of 1991, a beer with a familiar name began appearing around Oshkosh. Chief Oshkosh Red Lager shared no direct connection to the Chief Oshkosh Beer that had been produced by the Oshkosh Brewing Company for nearly 40 years until 1971, but the well-known name made the new beer immediately recognizable to almost everyone in the Oshkosh area. For many of them, their first brush with the new Chief Oshkosh came via a series of billboards featuring a booming declaration of an “Indian Uprising.”

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Chief Oshkosh Red Lager was produced by Mid-Coast Brewing from 1991 to 1994. The company was based in Oshkosh and brewed its beer on contract at the Stevens Point Brewery. Jeff Fulbright was the president and brewmaster of Mid-Coast. His duties didn’t end there. He generally did everything that needed to be done. That included developing the brewery’s advertising campaigns.

“This was the introduction,” says Fulbright. “I was trying to do a full-blown roll out and have all the media happen at once. I couldn’t afford television advertising, so these billboards were the next best option. I had an advertising company I was working with at the time, but I knew what I wanted and they executed the idea I gave them.”

His concept was blunt. Just a couple of words set in bold type alongside imagery loaded with meaning. Chief Oshkosh Red Lager was the first American craft beer sold in cans and Fulbright knew he needed to dispel the stereotype that canned beer was inferior. The centerpiece of the billboard showed a can of Chief Oshkosh rising up phoenix-like from a pile of smashed beer bottles. The broken bottles bear the labels of what were at the time premium brands: Moosehead, Special Export, Michelob, Killian’s Red, Löwenbräu, and Heineken.

“The subliminal thing here is that we have something better than bottles,” says Fulbright. “I was selling a premium beer in a can.  I was trying to convince people that premium beer could be in a can.”

The imagery was impactful, but what caused a stir were the two words, Indian Uprising. Five billboards went up in the Oshkosh area, four of them along Highway 41 and the other near downtown at the corner of N. Main and Irving. Almost immediately, Fulbright began getting complaints. “Those words pissed some people off,” says Fulbright. “These people were all upset. I even got letters from a priest of some sort. But the only people who contacted me were white people. That's the sworn truth. No Native Americans complained about it.”

Fulbright concedes, though, that the words were more provocative than he intended them to be. “My idea was to suggest that this was the return of Chief Oshkosh,” says Fulbright. “It's the wording that made it edgy. Had I thought about it more I might not have gone along with it.”

After the initial response, Fulbright sought to make his intentions clear. “I contacted the representative body for the heirs to the original Chief Oshkosh,” he says. “I was extending an olive branch and a semi-apology just to say there was nothing offensive intended. If I remember correctly, they told me there wasn't an issue and that they didn't really want to go into it.”

The issue died down soon enough, but it wouldn’t be Fulbright’s last scrape with those who took offense to the use of Native American names and imagery associated with alcohol. In 1994, another flair up would occur. If all goes well, I’ll have more on that next Monday along with some interesting video from the period. Until then, there’s much more about Chief Oshkosh Red Lager here.

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