Beer makers try online-only ads

Anheuser-Busch is generating buzz with an ad equal parts bawdy and hilarious, but you won't see it on television, and it barely mentions the beer it's advertising.

Dubbed “Swear Jar,” the too-risque-for-TV ad debuted on the Internet in 2007. A minute long, it begins with an office worker asking about a jar at the reception desk. It's a “swear jar,” he's told: Anyone who swears puts in a quarter. The expletives fly when workers learn the money will be used to buy a case of Bud Light (the roughly 17 bad words are bleeped out).

“Poop,” a mousy woman says as she struggles with the copy machine. “Doesn't count,” a co-worker tells her. “Shut the ---- up!” she shoots back.

It's part of a growing trend increasingly embraced by beer makers and other mainstream marketers. Known as viral ads, such Web-only spots have become YouTube staples. They show up in social networking pages and get e-mailed between friends and co-workers, though whether they generate sales remains an open question.

Viral ads have the freedom to run as long or short as they want, no 30- or 60-second constraints. They can cross boundaries even cable TV respects, and they focus on entertainment as much as selling the product. Some are shot, or made to look like they're shot, with hand-held cameras like most of the rest of the videos in those Web venues.

Viral marketing has been around for more than a decade, but viral video ads have grown in popularity as it has become easier to watch and share video on the Web and video-sharing sites, such as YouTube. Forrester Research estimates interactive advertising was worth $20 billion in the U.S. this year and projects that amount to triple by 2012.

“It's definitely a trend, definitely happening,” said Benj Steinman, editor of Beer Marketer's Insights. “But it's still, relatively speaking, a small part of total (advertising) spending. The big part is still (on) sports on TV.”