Forgotten history: ‘Drafty the Snowman’

From time to time, In Poor Taste looks back on forgotten slices of Americana. In this installment, we examine the infamous postwar marketing ploy “Drafty the Snowman,” a disastrous effort from Budweiser manufacturer Anheuser-Busch that preceded the beer maker’s now iconic “Budweiser Clydesdales.” Drafty was introduced during the holiday season of 1951 and quickly met with widespread criticism and scorn.

“The story of ‘Drafty the Snowman’ doesn’t begin in 1951,” wrote the late Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian David Halberstam in his 1981 book, “Rough Drafty: The Making of a Public Relations Disaster.” “It actually began with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941, when America was forced to enter the war and Anheuser-Busch President and CEO Adolphus Busch III decided to divert much of the company’s resources to support the war effort.”

As Halberstam explains in vivid detail, that decision, though noble, ultimately laid the groundwork for the most embarrassing chapter in Anheuser-Busch history, one that starred an anthropomorphic and often offensive, beer-swilling snowman with an ever-present stein of Budweiser’s popular pale lager in his right twig/hand.

Shortly after the war ended in 1945, Anheuser-Busch experienced rapid growth, rebounding from the lean years of the war to open a national network of breweries. Yet in spite of the St. Louis-based brewery’s sudden growth and record profits, the company still felt it needed to better market itself to a country that was in the midst of its own postwar economic boom.

“The late 1940s and 1950s were a time of great economic growth in the United States, and the Busch family wanted to capitalize on that as much as they possibly could,” said American beer historian Fritz Morgan. “You can’t blame them for that, but you can blame them for Drafty, which was just a terrible, terrible idea that never should have seen the light of day.”

The idea for Drafty, who was briefly and regrettably featured in national radio and television advertising campaigns and made in-person appearances throughout the holiday season both in the United States and abroad, came about when former Anheuser-Busch marketing director Jeffrey Kilgore heard the beloved holiday song “Frosty the Snowman,” which was first recorded by Gene Autry and the Cass County Cowboys in 1950. Instantly popular, the song was soon adapted to other media, including a popular television special that still airs today. The country’s admiration for the “jolly, happy soul” inspired Kilgore to think up an alternate version of “Frosty” whose purpose was not to delight children on snowy afternoons but to spread the news about Budweiser beer.

In spite of a scathing article in the New York Times in which business reporter Jim Healy dubbed Drafty “a shameless attempt to piggyback on the success of Autry’s wildly popular children’s song,” the marketing team behind the well-oiled snowman soldiered on, and Drafty first appeared in a series of radio spots for Budweiser in late November of 1951.

“We had a casting call and we looked at about a thousand guys before the powers that be chose this grizzled old war vet named Frank McGee,” recalled the late Budweiser executive Gerhard Burroughs in a 1971 interview with Advertising Age. “I never supported that decision, as Frank, while a decent man, was noticeably incontinent. And we realized pretty quickly he had an alarming drinking problem.”

If indeed Drafty was a poor idea from the start, McGee would serve as the catalyst that would ultimately kill the campaign. Shortly after his introduction on radio, Drafty embarked on a nationwide and later international tour that included several in-store appearances per day. Many of those appearances were marred by McGee’s boorish, aggressive behavior while in character and a handful of arrests for driving under the influence of alcohol, as the former Army private was repeatedly caught riding the Budweiser snowmobile to and from promotional events while intoxicated.

“Frank’s time in the service really instilled in him a hatred of foreigners, and that xenophobia combined with his out-of-control drinking was just a recipe for disaster, especially on those overseas promotional tours,” lamented Burroughs.

In addition to McGee’s legal troubles, Drafty was soon the subject of copyright lawsuits that eventually forced Budweiser to cancel the campaign few had supported in the first place.

“Sadly, I had to let a lot of marketing people go after the Drafty debacle,” said Burroughs. “In 1951, the country just wasn’t ready for a foul-mouthed, drunken and ultranationalist mascot made of snow. And who knows if it ever will be?”

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