Below is my Hill column on the growing backlash of consumers against companies like Anheuser-Busch for controversial media campaigns. For a brand with a slogan of “Up For Whatever,” Bud Light may not be up for the meltdown unfolding across the country. The company is now effectively giving away beer due to plunging sales. It is not good when your brand comes synonymous with self-destructive marketing. “Bud Lighting” is now being used as a verb, noun, and present participle. When Miller Lite produced a controversial ad to attract women, it was accused of “Bud Lighting” itself. Bud Light has now joined names like Bork (as in “Borked” nominees) or Gerry (as in Gerrymandering) that became negative verbs or nouns. That is hardly good news when you are hoping to be known for your beer.
Here is the column:
At a recent baseball game, I watched a fellow Cubs fan facing a dilemma at Nationals Park in Washington. No, it wasn’t the dilemma of whether to cheer another meltdown by a Cubs pitcher — it was the beer vendor, who was handing him a Bud Light. The vendor had only Bud Lights left…for a good reason. The company is now literally giving away beer for free due to a consumer backlash.
With a pained look, the obviously thirsty fan declined and headed for the concourse looking for another brand. Bud Light was dead to him after the controversy over a promotion featuring transgender activist Dylan Mulvaney. The Cubs fan isn’t alone. Bud Light’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch, has reportedly lost nearly $19 billion since this controversy began.
Recently, I was at a function where a guest asked a bartender if he had anything other than Miller Light. He told me that he dropped the brand after Miller Light ran an advertisement titled “Bad $#!T to Good $#!T,” denouncing past male-oriented beer ads as “sh*t” for objectifying women.
Various writers dismissed the boycott against Bud Light and said that the company had to just “hold the line” because it would fade and fail. It hasn’t.
But something is happening that has taken experts by surprise. Consumers appear to be holding the line against a growing number of brands.
The response raises tough legal and business questions over companies launching campaigns viewed as political rather than commercial. On one hand, the objections to trans figures or products threaten a type of erasure of this part of our society. On the other hand, consumers are increasingly pushing back against what they see as heavy-handed marketing of causes. In the middle, often, are shareholders.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are now being boycotted by Catholics after the company invited an anti-Catholic drag queen group to be honored at a Pride Night event.
Target is being boycotted over its Pride line of merchandise, including selling “tuck-friendly” swimwear, among other items. The company is being slammed for hiring a transgender artist, Erik Carnell, who is famous for his Satan-loving products, to create the line. Target is now down $9 billion.
I support Target or companies selling pride products or items geared toward trans customers. However, some of these campaigns appear more than efforts to reach new pockets of consumers. Putting aside those with clear prejudices against a given group, some consumers are reacting to campaigns that appear to push political or social agendas rather than products.
As shown by Disney and its ongoing fight with Florida, corporations are now committed to political and social reform campaigns. While companies once eschewed political or social causes that would alienate consumers or damage their brands, executives are increasingly tying their brands to identity politics and controversial positions.
Some, like Disney, North Face and Nike, have doubled down in the face of backlash. Nike publicly shamed its customers for objecting to its use of Mulvaney to sell sports bras, telling them that they needed to be “kind” and “inclusive” and to stop yielding to “hate speech, bullying, or other behaviors.”
Even though most of these companies will likely weather the storm, there is no question that these campaigns are reducing sales and changing the perception of these brands.
As private companies, they have every right to take these stances. Likewise, customers have every right to express their disagreement by seeking alternative products. The only other interested parties are the shareholders, who are faced with lower share values and higher losses.
Shareholders can demand an accounting from these companies. Indeed, diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) advocates have often sued companies for failing to be more aggressive in reaching diversity goals. Companies like Facebook, Oracle, Danaher, Qualcomm, Gap and NortonLifeLock have been sued over the failure to reach greater goals of diversity.
Shareholders may allege a breach of the “duty of loyalty” in pursuing such campaigns, but it is a very difficult standard to meet. You have to show that executives are not just acting recklessly, but doing so in a self-interested manner or in bad faith. Alternatively, they can argue a breach of the “duty of care,” which requires a showing that the officials acted in a grossly negligent manner.
It is doubtful that such litigation would succeed. However, shareholders can generally force greater transparency on the scope and costs of these campaigns.
There is a tendency to treat executives responsible for these campaigns as irrational activists. After all, Alissa Heinerscheid, vice president of marketing for Bud Light, may have cost the company billions after pledging to drop Bud Light’s “fratty reputation and embrace inclusivity.”
She certainly succeeded in changing the entire view of the brand in less than a year on the job. Heinerscheid knew that the brand image sells the beer. That image is now unpalatable for many consumers. The social value of these campaigns is lost if consumers reject beer with the branding message.
It is not clear how these losses will impact social messaging through branding, but shareholders will have little influence. These executives are rational actors. While these campaigns may alienate consumers and even reduce profits, they offer personal and professional benefits for senior employees who make DEI policies a priority. The campaigns are the bona fides for executives in seeking opportunities and greater status. While Heinerscheid was put on leave during the meltdown, these campaigns are a net gain for most executives. More importantly, speaking against such campaigns out of concern for the brand is a high-risk move for any executive who does not want to be labeled insensitive or unenlightened.
There is a theory for an analogous phenomenon. It is called Garrett Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons, wherein everyone acts for their immediate benefit and everyone ultimately starves as a consequence.
Hardin showed how rational actors can continue to act for their own short-term benefit, even if it means destroying the very resource that everyone relies upon to survive in the long term. “The inherent logic of the commons,” he wrote, “remorselessly generates tragedy.”
This is why executives will continue to pursue DEI campaigns regardless of their cost or the loss of consumers. Consumers seem to sense this “inherent logic,” and they are responding with the one means available to change the calculus. Companies will have to find a path through this morass with marketing that is inclusive and edgy without being political or proselytizing. There may also be increased shareholder litigation over these losses.
In the interim, Bud Light has become the unenviable vehicle for consumers to show that they are tired of companies’ virtue-signaling and social agendas. In this perverse market, the least objectionable brand may prevail when the beer guy comes around at the ballpark.
Jonathan Turley is the Shapiro Professor of Public Interest Law for George Washington University.