By Bryna R. Campbell
I’m not much of a Super Bowl person, but like many Americans, every year I do take a little time to watch the commercials that get the most buzz. This year, one of the most interesting for me was Anheuser-Busch’s commercial titled “Born the Hard Way,” which chronicled the journey of the one of the company’s founders, Adolphus Busch, from Germany to St. Louis (watch it here if you haven’t seen it yet). Like many, I was struck by the dramatization of the immigrant story (someone on Twitter suggested it would make the foundations of an interesting HBO show, and I agree). But just as interesting to me were the ways the commercial also subtly recognized the middle of the country’s role as a kind of crossroads of the many different cultures that make up this diverse, sometimes fraught, currently contentious country.
I was drawn to this part of the story as a former St. Louisan who knows that region well, and knows how central the Busch and Anheuser families are to that region’s history. Those German roots celebrated in the ad are no surprise to anyone who lives there. But that story is interwoven with a broader story of St. Louis – once a frontier town, now a city that is known for its large refugee community. And as someone who teaches the art and culture of that region, I was also struck by how the commercial drew on other kinds of imagery as well. In what follows, I talk a little bit more about these aspects of the commercial, adding some historical context about St. Louis especially.
St. Louis as a Cultural Crossroads
I want to start with the final scene of the commercial, where we see the protagonist Adolphus arriving at a St. Louis bar. There he meets his eventual co-founder (and future father-in-law) Eberhard Anheuser. The two share a beer and Adolphus shows him his plans. Both, it is clear by their names and their accents, are German immigrants.
While this final scene alludes to the co-founders’ future partnership, it’s also a nod to St. Louis’s broader immigrant population in the 19th century. Eberhard had arrived to the city more than a decade before Adolphus as one of thousands of German immigrants who had made the city their home during a period of upheaval in Germany and Bohemia. Before Germans came working-class Irish immigrants, many of whom worked the kind of unskilled labor jobs that you see in the scene where Adolphus arrives on the river front. Together, in fact, the two groups made up 40% percent of the population in the city at mid-century. But St. Louis was diverse in other ways as well – so diverse that on the eve of the Civil War, it led the country in population not born in the U.S. (the city’s website offers details on all this here).
During this period of rapid growth, St. Louis was also a frontier town where people from range of different backgrounds came and went, meeting and mingling, exchanging goods. On a street you might find anyone from Spanish traders, to French-Canadian trappers, to German and Irish immigrants, to Native Americans from different tribes, to Mexican mule drivers, to East Coasters leaving to go on the Oregon Trail. Though African Americans made up a much smaller percentage of the population in this period (5%, with 2/3 as slaves), beginning in the late 19th century, this group would grow to become a major part community in St. Louis as well.
The River as a Symbol
Before Adolphus arrives in St. Louis, we see him on a steamship next to an African American man. The geography is vague, outside the fact that they are clearly on the Mississippi River. Immediately when I saw this, I thought first of Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, in which the river becomes a space where Huck and escaped slave Jim dream of freedom and opportunity. I also thought of various connections within black history between rivers and journeys to freedom in the north.
But other images came to mind as well. Rivers have long been a theme within art about St. Louis’s history and culture, often used in works that center of themes of race. Just last week in my American art class on themes of nature and nationhood, I was showing my students a work by Missouri artist George Caleb Bingham called the Fur Traders Descending the Missouri that features French trader and his mixed-race, half-indigenous son. For Bingham, this river (which meets the Mississippi in St. Louis) becomes a space of encounters – encounters between geographies, between humans and nature, and between cultures.
Notably, some scholars have argued that this work does its own bit of propaganda about America. Bingham depicted this scene with harmonious colors and a balanced composition, and all is remarkably peaceful and still. Many easterners were anxious about the kinds of diverse, polyglot communities developing on the frontier – and this work seems designed to assuage their anxieties.
Immigrant Beer is American Beer, American Beer is Immigrant Beer
Can we talk about Budweiser, the “King of Beers?” Though Anheuser-Busch is now a subsidiary of the Belgian corporation In-Bev, before 2008 it was the largest American-owned beer company. Before the election this past fall, In-Bev went all in on a patriotic theme that would secure this association. Over the summer, it labeled its Budweiser cans “America.” This lead some – including then-candidate Trump himself – to suggest that the company was supporting the Republican candidate.
But perhaps Anheuser-Busch was going for a long con, because in the Super Bowl commercial the company uses the repeated imagery of Adolphus’s paper slip to connect his recipe for beer to the man, his ambitions, AND to his heritage and his home country. When he arrives and meets Eberhard in that bar, the first thing he does is show him his slip of paper.
For better-or-worse, Anheuser and Busch helped to make German-style lager one of the US’s most popular types of beers. Anyone who watches their ads regularly knows that they pride themselves in this. But this particular commercial tells this part of their story through their struggle to come to this country for opportunity. Thus, the commercial is a celebration of the co-founders’ cultural heritage and a celebration of the fact that much of American culture is born of histories like this one.
St. Louis Today and Refugees
Finally, I want to talk about St. Louis today. Immigrants continue to come to St. Louis in large numbers. Significantly, the majority of these newer immigrants are refugees. Many fled Thailand in the 1970s. Others have come from Laos and Vietnam. South City, where I used to live before I moved to Portland, is dotted with international restaurants, bakeries, and groceries owned by immigrants from countries in Southeast Asia.
Most recently, the very part of the city that used to be primarily the old German immigrant neighborhood has become a refuge for Bosnians who fled former Yugoslavia. These refugees are predominantly Muslim; they were fleeing those who were committing genocide against their community. They are in St. Louis because communities and associations (many of them explicitly Christian) welcomed them there. In fact, St. Louis has more Bosnians per capita than anywhere else outside of Bosnia itself, adding yet another layer to the cities multicultural history (for more on this, see this 2013 City Lab article that explains the complex mix of politics, policy, and word of mouth).
Challenge to Nativism
The immigrant story in “Born the Hard Way” is compelling on its own. But these other elements add dimensions that make the narrative about more than one individual pursuing his version of the “American dream.” To some right now, this kind of America is perceived as a threat. But this commercial reminds us that layers of encounters among and between groups and cultures are threaded throughout American history. Hence the commercial’s broader resonance. Together, the various elements of this commercial offer a multilayered challenge to the the nativist construction of “America first” that has reawakened in American politics.
The feature image is of Anheuser-Busch Brewery in St. Louis, 1942.