Fat Tire’s first prize: an obsolete bike. The rationality of costly signaling.

July 20, 2009 | By | 30 Replies More

Fat Tire Beer is holding a contest, and first prize is an old-fashioned bicycle. It is a cumbersome and heavy one-speed bike that lacks most of the useful features found on modern bicycles. What does it have going for it? Nothing much worth my while. I buy my bicycles for performance, features and functionality, not looks.

Image by Erich Vieth

Image by Erich Vieth

Others would say that the Fat Tire bicycle has an unique style worth coveting. I know a woman who recently paid a large amount of money for a “retro” bicycle much like the one in the photo. She bragged about her bicycle only in terms of what it looked like, and seemed to get irritated when I asked her whether she would miss some of the useful features found in most modern bicycles, features such as multiple gears, high-tech gear-shifting, feather-light frame, and front or rear suspension. It appears that Fat Tire Beer is looking for customers like the woman I just described, people who are obsessed with the looks of a bicycle rather than its functionality.

I recently posted on Geoffrey Miller’s terrific new book, Spent. At page 97, Miller discusses the “signaling value” of many modern products. Miller points out that modern corporations work hard to avoid competition based upon objective features that can be compared. Fat Tire Beer, for example, did not choose to offer a modern bicycle that could easily be compared to the many other bicycles currently being sold. Instead, the company chose to offer an old-fashioned bike that would signal a certain trait for the owner and his/her friends/acquaintances. Modern corporations

Use advertising to create signaling systems–psychological links between brands and the aspirational traits that consumers would like to display. Although these signaling links must be commonly understood by the consumer’s socially relevant peer group, they need not involve the actual product at all. The typical Vogue magazine ad shows just two things: a brand name and an attractive person . . . there is a hidden rationality at work–the rationality of costly signaling. What matters in most advertising is the learned association between the consumer’s aspirational traits and the company’s trademarked brand name–the fountainhead of all profitability.

Therefore, don’t waste your time trying to figure out what obsolete styles of bicycles have to do with beer. The bicycle featured on the label of Fat Tire Beer has nothing to do with the taste or quality of the liquid in the bottle. Rather, buying Fat Tire Beer is an opportunity for a consumer to display to others that the consumer can afford a premium beer. The bicycle on the label gives consumers a further opportunity to suggest that tradition is more important than functionality. Those who buy Fat Tire Beer let the beer do their talking for them: “I’m a person who values tradition over functionality.” That’s my guess.

I wouldn’t accept that cumbersome and sparsely-featured contest bicycle even if someone offered it to me for free, because I know less-costly, less wasteful and more effective ways of convincing others that I often value tradition. It involves hard work and no gimmicks. It requires that you willingly put your life under a microscope, that you repeatedly show rather than tell, and that you show your values in ways other than through conspicuous consumption.


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Category: advertising, American Culture, Communication, Consumerism, Current Events, Media, Psychology Cognition, Science

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (30)

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  1. Dan Klarmann says:

    Beer ads puzzle me. "Fat Tire" just makes me think of my midriff. And I've always been amused by the local brewery campaign that regularly features large horses followed by streams of yellow liquid into a mug. That says it all.

  2. Beer puzzles me. I've tried and tried for decades to learn to like it, but it's just bitter. I want bitter, I'll drink two day old coffee and at least be more awake, but beer has always hit me like carbonated Blah. And yes, I have tried all manner—pilsner, pale ale, mailbock, marzen…about once a year I'll go to a microbrewery and try another, just in case, but I have yet to find one that tastes worth tasting again.

    But what really puzzles me is hearing that certain domestic packaged beers are actually crap to a true beer connosieur and seeing so-called beer-lovers buy this stuff a case or two at a time and just drink one after another after another in one night…

    Beer culture, at least in this country, disturbs me.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Mark: If you could just sit back and reminisce about riding a big old fat-tire bicycle when you were little, you might find yourself enjoying Fat Tire beer.

      I drink a beer about every six months, whether I need it or not, so I can relate.

  3. Erich, that must be it. I never rode a fat tired bicycle. I didn't have a bicycle till I was 13. That crucial delay must have warped me for all future normal behavior.

  4. Ben says:

    I recently quit drinking, however I would like to recommend Anderson Valley Summer Soltice. Scrumptious beer!


  5. Edgar Montrose says:

    "It appears that Fat Tire Beer is looking for customers like the woman I just described, people who are obsessed with the looks of a bicycle rather than its functionality."

    It appears that Fat Tire Beer is looking for Harley Davidson customers. HD has reached the pinnacle of this philosophy, and even boasts, "If I have to explain, you won't understand." To me, such a statement is right up there with, "You have to have faith."

    And yes, I am a motorcyclist. And a bicyclist. But not a drinker.

  6. John Stoner says:

    I was at Tour de Fat in Chicago this year. Two things:

    They gave away not one bike but two. The first was a raffle prize. I think it fit your description, but I didn't get as good a look. The second was in exchange for the winner giving up his car. It was a pretty nice commuter bike, with multiple gears, panniers, and an upright posture–sort of an American reinterpretation of a Dutch bike. It was also quite stylish, all in black.

    I'd say there was a bit more going on than a worship of tradition. In communities across the country, there are people renouncing cars, due not just to the environmental impact, but also the cost. There's a vibrant, forward-looking culture emerging around this trend. New Belgium Brewing is cashing in.

  7. John says:

    Maybe this is irrelevant to the point of the post, but Fat Tire is a pretty good beer. My opinion is not related to the name or how an old bicycle might relate to the name. Someone mentioned it was their favorite beer and my wife and I tried it and we both enjoyed it. I'm not much of a beer drinker myself, but I really liked it. It won't change your life or anything, but you shouldn't let its name or the association with old bicycles or motorcycles, stop you from trying it.

  8. Jerrod says:

    Erich, Yes you should try a Fat Tire, or any New Belgium brew, excellent products. I am a function over looks type of guy too, but there's nothing wrong with the mentality of Harley Davidson type people (I am not one btw), they love what they do, they take care of their bike and usually understand the mechanics of it pretty well. If more people were like that, there would be a lot less waste as we drive more reliable and simpler vehicles. It costs more fossil fuels and spews more emissions to build new vehicles than it would have to maintain the older ones that get slightly worse gas economy [citation needed]. Just my $.02

    BTW – I also dislike the bike they are giving away, I would much rather have my mediocre mountain bike.


  9. NIklaus Pfirsig says:


    I know many people who would prefer the obsolete retro bike over a modern lightweight multi-speed any day, not for the looks, but for the simplicity.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Niklaus: I know many people who choose things that look simple rather than investing a little bit of time to simplify one's life. That Fat Tire bike certainly does LOOK simple, and I think that you're correct that this simple look appeals to many people (including the woman I mentioned in the post). A lot of those simple-looking bikes end up not being used, though, because they are too difficult to pedal up hills. And it doesn't take much to learn to use a gear-shifter. Maybe about a minute or two. If those luddites would invest that minute or two and buy a bike that probably costs less than those retro bikes, they would really simplify their lives by really using their bikes rather than their polluting motor vehicles.

      BTW, here is a store where you can get simple "cruiser" bikes. Notice, though that many of these do have multiple gears and none of them have all of the extra decorative metal found on the Fat Tire bike. http://www.chubbyscruisers.com/shop/cruisers-mens

  10. Dan Klarmann says:

    My niece did complain about how often I changed gears while filming this video. She is of the pick a gear and stay there persuasion. I am more of a maintain a regular cadence fellow.

    <object width="425" height="261"><param name="movie" value="http://www.youtube.com/v/HrpBRdFwKOk&hl=en&fs=1&"></param><param name="allowFullScreen" value="true"></param><param name="allowscriptaccess" value="always"></param><embed src="http://www.youtube.com/v/HrpBRdFwKOk&hl=en&fs=1&&quot; type="application/x-shockwave-flash" allowscriptaccess="always" allowfullscreen="true" width="425" height="261"></embed></object>

  11. Tony Coyle says:

    Mark — you should take a vacation to Belgium. Just pick any cafe (bar) within walking distance of your hotel…. and start in on the menu. (Some menus have many hundreds of beers.)

    While drinking — you may want to try some real frites (I hope you like mayo+mustard & mayo+garlic & may+ketchup & mayo+mayo.. 😉 .), and for dessert you can then have some REAL waffles (gaufre de Liege) with nuts & fruit & honey… yum!

    You may want to hire a personal trainer while in Belgium – to work off the excess weight you'll undoubtedly gain!

  12. Tony Coyle says:


    Great video — it shows how 'cool' even the most prosaic activities can look when seen through a different lens.

    I agree with you about cadence — isn't that what the damn gears are for?

    (Except when 'working out' — I'll change my pace as well as power — to exercise fast twitch as well as slow twitch)

  13. Tony,

    While I would love to see Belgium and feast upon all the marvelousness of their native cuisine, trust me on this: beer and me don't match up.

    But I have also heard of the phenomenon of mayo on fries. I don't put anything on my fries but salt and pepper. Ketchup repels me on anything—especially hamburgers, on which I also detest pickles.

    But genuine Belgian waffles….we had a restaurant in St. Louis once that did them right, and they are to die for. But 'tis true—one must high one's spreading derrier to yon gymnasium to pump and grunt and thus sweat mightily to strip the fat from your girthful…um…girth.

  14. Tony Coyle says:

    mark: I do understand — it's simply that there are so many beers, and the US (even micro breweries) barely scrape the surface of the possible. There are very few 'sweet' beers in the US (don't know of any, in fact) but there are whole catalogs of beers that aren't bitter in Belgium (and elsewhere).

    Each to their own. (It would be awfully boring if we all had the same tastes)

    My personal predilection, for fries and for burgers, is also simplicity (although I do like spices: mexican, indian, asian — yum!).

    I detest mayo in any form (my wife makes "the best potato salad on three continents" but I cannot eat more than a little, due to the mayo). However, I think it important to convey that in Belgium mayo is difficult to avoid!

    I'll also allow Americans their love affair ketchup – which I also detest – whether with fries or on a burger.

    My wife saves me from ever having to ingest mayo, since she can eat enough of that gloop for any three regular people. My son ingests ketchup as if it were water on a hot day!

    So I am free to avoid those condiments from hell, without upsetting anyone for whom they approach the nature of a sacrament.

    i hope.

  15. Sarah says:

    New Belgium Brewery is in Fort Collins Colorado and it's a little different out there then here. There are bike paths painted right into the roads all around town and more people including the students at CSU, families, workers just everyone rides their bikes everywhere whether it's 90 degrees or 32 degrees. Fat Tire is a really good beer and so are all the others they brew. I recommend trying Fat Tire and going to the brewery and hearing the story of how New Belgium came to be and then the whole Fat Tire bike will make a lot more sense to you. It truly is an amazing story especially in the short amount of time New Belgium has been around. For those that understand New Belgium and the Fat Tire bike we know it's not a gimmick to get people to drink beer we know the significance behind the bike and its meaning to New Belgium.

  16. John Zamojski says:

    Hi, I actually just won this bike in a Fat Tire contest. Not everything is about functionality and form. I am so excited that I actually won something and its a really cool bike. Reading your article just seem to suck the fun out of everything, Im only sorry that while searching for the bike on-line I stumbled across your pointless and dry article…I think you need a beer!

  17. Ryan says:

    While I applaud the author's desire to place style over substance, I think a little more research into how New Belgium Brewing goes about its business was in order.

    The company was one of the first microbreweries to actively work to reduce its footprint. It's a wind powered brewery that recycles its spent grain, and gives its employees a bicycle like the one you see in the picture above as an anniversary present. And while the bike is bigger and heavier than the carbon fiber frankenstein bikes the author espouses, it's a bike that has both style and substance.

    I'm a homebrewer, AND a bicyclist and I ride a single speed bike to commute to and from work, and anywhere else I feel like going, but I also ride it for fun. Sounds to me like the author could use a spin around the block to the nearest local bar that serves New Belgium's excellent beer to remember what it's like to enjoy the ride for more than just getting to one's destination.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Ryan: Thanks for the information. I am a bicycle commuter already (sometimes I even ride to a pub). Sometimes I bristle at people who buy brand new expensive "retro" bicycles that they are much less likely to use than cheaper but better-designed bicycles. I'm sure that that frustration at style over substance played a part in my writing of the post.

      Kudos to New Belgium Brewing for keeping its footprint small!

  18. Alan Marcetti says:

    The company chose the bike because it looks like their logo.

    The beer tastes good. They have a great corporate philosophy. Riding bikes is fun. What is the big deal?

  19. Matt says:

    Obviously you don't know as much as you think you do about bikes. People use different bikes for different things. The woman you mentioned doesn't have a need for more than one gear and a carbon fiber frame, because she's probably just riding it around the neighborhood with her kids. You seem to talk about "gears" as modern features, they still make single speed bikes today for casual riding. Not everyone needs top of the line components to ride.

    Hell, I ride a 25 year old Trek road bike I picked out of the trash and turned into a single speed. Bet I could keep up with you just fine, even on the hills.

    And seriously, you say you wouldn't take this "cumbersome sparsely-featured bike" if they gave it to you; and then you go on to talk about consumption? You really have no clue what you're talking about.

  20. Erich Vieth says:

    Matt: I have nothing against continuing to use old products that still work (or even better, repairing them so that we can still use them). My complaint is that this is a NEW bike that tries to appeal to old-fashioned aesthetics, while missing out on the many new useful features.

    For the same reason, I would question a company giving out brand new computers (e.g., a Mac Plus) that only had the features of computers made twenty years ago. Why not offer full-featured models when it would cost the same? This prize tries to look cool by its looks, ignoring features that would make it far more useful.

  21. mark vpriestas says:

    To the writer of this article, why the hostility towards these “fat tire” bikes. You sound like a person who has no respect or no idea on what having a classic bike is like. I also have a Gary Fisher which I put over a thousand miles on in one season. I don’t do road bikes, kills my whole body, especially wrists. I can do or go any where on that bike, admittedly a little slower. Thats not to say Im not humping it though. As far as the retro, well, there is no other feeling. Funny I saw this article though because I just purchased the tin for FTB’s at a yard sale. I never heard of it, COOL. That is my bike on the picture, oh yeah!

  22. jon says:

    This guy sounds like a tool. I make bikes like the one pictured. Not everyone is planning on going on a 20 mile bike a thon. Some of us just want a nice ride to store to get some steaks and a bottle of red wine.

  23. Tom says:

    Mr. Erich Vieth, I am sure you are an expert of the law and legal system. But your post makes me doubt that you are an expert at bicycling as a form of transportation. The New Belgium beer company is actively promoting bicycling as an alternative to motor vehicles. Their whole company is heavily involved in “green” energy alternatives. You can view this as a cynical marketing ploy if you want. But they are doing it, and I don’t doubt their sincerity.

    The reason I doubt your expertise in using bicycles as a transportation alternative is that you claim that you assert that the retro cruiser style of bike is not as functional as more modern bikes. I would beg to differ. First of all, the “fat” tires that cruisers have a much more functional than the skinny tires on most racing and recreation bicycles. The fat tires allow the bike to absorb the shocks from potholes and other obstacles on the road. Some mountain bikes do have shocks, but very few racing and recreation bikes do. Also, fat tires provided more traction than skinny tires, and thus help prevent skid outs when making turns or coming to a sudden stop by braking. Also, for some bicyclists, the advantage of having a multi-gear bike is not worth the maintenance to keep those gears aligned and running smoothly. Also, the gears on multi-gear bikes wear out sooner, and that often means the end of the bike (since replacement cost is so high that it is often more sensible to get a new bike). Also, the lightweight of more modern bikes is very important to those who participate in bicycle racers, but not that significant to those who are using a bike for short-trip transportation, or for recreation. A few extra pounds is not noticed by most cyclists.

    Mr. Erich Vieth, I wonder if you’ve succumbed to the general cynicism that is endemic among lawyers. You lawyers see the worst side of humanity on a daily basis in your work. Spin and outright deceit are things you see everyday in your profession. But the whole world is not like that. There are some people out there who are sincere and yes, even sort of innocent.

    Whether premium beer is really worth the extra cost, whether it is really better tasting, or more nutritious, I don’t know. Maybe. Maybe not.

    But I do respectfully suggest that too much cynicism isn’t good for anyone, or for our nation and the world. We have to believe that something and someone is sincere and benevolent.

    I believe in New Belgium beer company, and will continue to do so until I hear evidence that they are greedy hucksters.

    And I believe in bicycling for transportation. I live in St. Louis, and believe this can work for many people, as long as they observe good safety principles

    Mr. Erich Vieth, best wishes to you sir! I hope you are rich by the end of the year!

  24. Tom says:

    Oops. My apologies to Mr. Erich Vieth. In my previous comment to this post, I said I thought that Mr. Vieth was probably not an expert as regards using a bicycle for transportation. Now I have read some other posts of his on this blog, and I see how WRONG I was about that. He IS an expert. He’s used a bicycle for commuting to work for years, and has thought and written a lot about it. So, I regret my earlier comment.

    In my defense, perhaps I was provoked by Mr. Vieth’s use of the provocative word “obsolete” to describe the retro cruiser style of bicycle that is promoted by the New Belgium beer company. Obsolete is a strong word. It is like say “worthless,” or “junk.”

    Mr. Vieth also seemed to be saying that anyone who liked such a bicycle had been brainwashed or duped by advertising into liking them. That implies that such people are stupid, and not as smart and sophisticated as other people who can see through the machinations of advertising manipulation.

    So, that’s my defense, your honor. I was provoked.

    Even so, I regret how I responded to these provocation, if indeed they were provocations.

    I regret the lack of respect I showed to the blog host. Mr. Vieth.

    Lastly, though I don’t think I’ve bicycled as a commuter as much as Mr. Vieth, I would invite him to consider whether there are some design features in the “obsolete” cruiser bicycles that would actually make his bicycling more convenient and enjoyable.

    The New Belgium “obsolete” bicycle comes standard with:

    –“Fat” tires that absorb shocks and give better traction than the skinnier tires on most racing bikes and recreation bikes. Skinnier tires often do not handled potholes well, and result in terrible damage to the wheel (spokes, rim, axle). Bicycles “skid out” sometimes and this can result in a bicyclist really hurting themselves (especially injuries to legs and arms), and so good traction is really helpful.
    –Fenders to eliminate the water spray hitting the bicyclist on wet roads.
    –Built in headlight (and maybe a rear light too) on some models.
    –Larger diameter wheels, and bigger frame, which enables the bike operator to sit higher, which makes the operator more visible to motorists, and makes everything a little more visible to the bike operator. All this helps with safety. Smaller frame and smaller wheel bikes put the bike operator at a lower level of seeing and being seen.
    –No need to fuss with adjusting brakes all the time.
    –Possibly higher capacity to carry cargo. Some modern bikes such as the ones you buy at bike shops or chain stores cannot handle heavy cargo loads.
    –No need to constantly adjust the derailleur shifting mechanisms.

    Even more, the New Belgium beer company is, like Mr. Vieth, promoting bicycle commuting. See this on their web site:


    So then…. what exactly is Team Wonderbike?

    Team Wonderbike is a laughing war whoop, a social movement, an opening salvo in the campaign to greatly increase the use of one of mankind’s greatest inventions, the bicycle. Human-powered, carbon-free, and more fun than walking, driving or running in place – the bicycle offers an elegant solution to so many issues. All that AND it’s good for you.

    Currently more than 20,000 strong, we on Team Wonderbike have pledged to bike – not drive – better than 14 million miles in the coming year. But that’s just the beginning. We need you (and your family and friends too) to take the pledge and commit to biking whenever you can. We’re building an online community with regional chapters and a national voice for sensible transportation alternatives. And we’re having a damn good time doing it.

    So join us, won’t you? Together, we’ll change the future one bike at a time.

  25. Dawn says:

    I have always drank fat tire beer, love it. I even have a couple of fat tire glasses that I use for everything. But get this……I have a fat tire bike and I use it! I even took it on a 10-mile trip on the Hiawatha Trail which borders Montana and Idaho. Look it up! Even have pictures. People laughed at me and couldn’t believe it, the ride was beautiful. The only thing that I had to add was a better light as you ride through many old train tunnels, one that is a mile long! It’s a 10-mile trail where the railroad tracks use to be. It doesn’t have much of an incline so I didn’t have to worry about gears. Just a nice steady ride. It was fabulous and would take it again and again.

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