In the U.S., Thanksgiving marks the unofficial start of the race to Christmas (unless you happen to decorate department stores, then it starts in October). But in Denmark, the Christmas race starts tonight.
J-Day, as its known, is the momentous occasion when at exactly 8:59 p.m. on the first Friday of November, the 140-year old Tuborg Brewery releases Julebryg (Christmas Brew), the high-octane libation that will fuel most holiday festivities in the country for the next six weeks. And then it's gone.
Despite having such a short lifespan, this strong, dark pilsner (5.6 percent alcohol by volume) with aromas of "licorice and black currant" is Denmark's fourth best selling beer, and J-Day is far and away the biggest day of the year for Tuborg, which is now owned by the Carlsberg Group. When "the snow falls tonight," as the slogan goes, Danes will pack the bars and spill into the streets. They'll sing and dance and wear silly hats provided free from Tuborg, all for the chance to get a first taste and welcome the season with a hardy "Skål!"
What's unusual is that this national tradition came about because of a commercial — a single TV ad that ran for the first time in 1980, and has been running ever since. "It's probably the only ad in the world that hasn't changed in 30 years," says Carlsberg's Jens Bekke. Check it out below.
The ad was for regular old Tuborg pilsner, but everyone loved it so much, that the company decided to ride the wave of enthusiasm all the way to the creation of a new product. The rest is history. I ask Bekke if there's anything new about the beer or its celebration this year and he just chuckles. "We have to be careful. Danes love tradition. They would react very badly if we changed much."
Talk about an advertising executive's dream.
Here's how J-Day works: As Julebryg begins to flow from the taps, blue-clad Tuborg elves will make their merry way to some 450 locations throughout the country, handing out two or three cases of free beer at each. That's about 25,000 bottles, plus an incredible array of blue-themed merchandise. It's probably a small price for the company to pay for the resulting intense brand loyalty.
And, boy, are these Danes loyal. That 8:59 p.m. kickoff? It's for real. Bekke admits there are sometimes problems with establishments trying to tap the kegs a little early. But they generally get ratted out by their customers and put on Tuborg's black list, which means next year, no Julebryg until the day after it's released. Yikes.
Jacob Lyby, a bar manager at the Fox and Hounds in the town of Herning, says tonight his bar will do twice the business of a normal Friday. But it's not the number one sales day "because it starts early and people get drunk quickly and go home." But, he says, "it's definitely a fun evening."
To understand just how big a deal this day is, consider one more historical tidbit. Until 1999, the Tuborg beer snowstorm let loose on the second Wednesday of November at 11:59 p.m. With a not-very strictly enforced drinking age of 18, it's not hard to imagine what most high school classrooms and offices may have looked like on the second Thursday of November. So in 1999, Tuborg took the nation's well-being to heart and made the switch to the first Friday of the month.
It's hard to imagine any other populace expressing quite the same almost-ubiquitous pride in a single brand. But Bekke says J-Day is spreading. It's been celebrated in Serbia now for several years, and last year, a handful of Swedish cities toasted along with their neighbors.
Alas, the brew is not yet available in the U.S. But someday it could be, if there's enough demand. Bekke says on Tuesday, Tuborg will be placing a full-page mystery ad in several Danish papers that has something to do with both the U.S. election and Julebryg, so stay tuned.
Just in case this is the start of another triumphant moment in advertising history, let me be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas and Happy New Beer!