Bud Light, ‘buycotts’ and our vicious consumerism
Stephen Viz | Thursday, April 20, 2023
First of all, let the record show that I am a Miller Lite man, as I only drink Bud Light if it’s free. Secondly, I want to make it clear from the get-go that this piece will avoid political pseudoscience, jargon, bigotry and opinion in addressing the obvious: Bud Light, Anheuser-Busch’s flagship alcoholic beverage, just entered stage left into the heat of American division and anger. Rather, I would like to address the facts regarding issues that continue to divide Americans continuously as yet another election cycle fast approaches.
Introduced in 1982 by Anheuser-Busch as the Budweiser Light, Bud Light has exploded in the past 40 years to become America’s darling beverage of choice at frat parties, tailgates and get togethers alike. But in the past month, the reputation of this parent company’s golden goose took a nosedive, as backlash from the conservative right has translated into a full-blown boycott. This boycott is a result of a Bud Light advertising campaign that partnered the beer with transgender social media personality Dylan Mulvaney. In the ad that Dylan posted on her socials, she received personalized cans of Bud Light, celebrating the 365-day anniversary of her public transition. The advertisement quickly exploded across the internet and caused a huge stir from dozens of prominent conservative figures such as Kid Rock, who made it quite clear that his relationship with Bud Light was over. Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth released a statement on April 14 saying, “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.” Followed by that was a nostalgic Clydesdale horse ad for Budweiser, attempting to cement the company back to its “all-American” roots. But it appears to be too little, too late, as perception around the brand continues to drop amongst Anheuser-Busch’s primary stakeholders.
This lack of confidence in the brand has been quickly demonstrated in the coordinated conservative boycott of Anheuser-Busch and Belgian parent InBev, who acquired Busch in a 2008 hostile takeover (fascinating stuff to an MBA student like me). This boycott and backlash has caused the company’s market value to drop by $5 billion, as many bars even across the country have flat out refused to restock Bud Light. For a company once lauded for the patriotism that created the iconic Clydesdale Super Bowl Ad on the fifth anniversary of 9/11, things aren’t great for Bud Light. But the truth is, for an international beverage conglomerate that operates 630 beer brands in 150 different countries, this really won’t make a dent. The company actually has seen worse fiscal quarters. And many experts also predict that the backlash that comes from the advertising won’t last long, as social media firestorms that generate such momentum are often forgotten about several months later. That’s nothing new. And while conservative leaders such as Donald Trump Jr. call for an end to the Anheuser-Busch boycott, hundreds of disgusting memes and TikToks now circle the internet, belittling drinkers of Bud Light to a supposed inferior sexuality. And if all this outrage is really over come June, what the hell was anyone in these intersecting parties even trying to accomplish in the first place? I don’t really know, but to me, I really believe that this identity-focused consumerism is killing us. And every time an instance arises, it drives us further and further apart.
While these instances continue to drive us apart, the economics go to show that behind the scenes, immense amounts of strategy and capital go into pitting the American people against each other. Since reading “Freakonomics” for the first time in high school, it has always stuck with me that economics could always be aligned to incentives. Economies of scale only work if incentives exist, and for companies and political players alike, they certainly do. So while conservatives hold the line with this boycott, liberals have issued a call to “buycott” Bud Light and other AB InBev products. A buycott refers to consumers purchasing something they wouldn’t necessarily buy as a show of solidarity and support in a response to a boycott. And while the social media impact of boycotts is more favorable, the sales impact is more positive on the buycott side. Nike and Colin Kaepernick and Goya Foods and Donald Trump are two recent examples of buycotts favoring political purchasing power. So while the gripes and dissent continue to mount, maybe this was premeditated. In another life, maybe I could be an investigative journalist charged with associating Bud Light’s diminishing American sales in the InBev portfolio to advertising strategies that would end up retaining original customers after a social media firestorm.
But for now, as I write one of my last articles for Notre Dame’s legendary newspaper, The Observer, I am tired. Tired of our political landscape, tired of the cruelty and the sheer viciousness of our consumerism. This is a viciousness that has encompassed the best of both stupidity and loyalty, and has come to define our century. Michael J. O’Loughlin of America Magazine had this to say about this viciousness: “Consumerism can be downright soul crushing. Companies spent more than $140 billion in U.S. advertising in 2016. They aim to convince us that their products will make us happier, wealthier, thinner, smarter, sexier, cleaner and, perhaps most dubiously, more fulfilled.”
I don’t know if a truer statement has ever been uttered. From as far back as I can remember, kids on the playground were always defined by the shoes we wore, and the iPhones we either did or didn’t have (I didn’t have one, it sucked). And our consumerism doesn’t stop in seventh grade like it should, as middle-aged folks all across the country constantly keep score by brand upgrading and defining themselves by what they support and purchase. For middle- and upper-class America, this trend only further compounds and complicates year after year, and the Kendall Jenner Pepsi ads of today become the Bud Light buycotts of tomorrow. So my question is, what does it matter? And when will it end? As a consumer, I have certainly come to enjoy the things I enjoy, but do these brands and goods define me? No. Do I associate my victories and successes with Starbucks, Bud Light and Nike? No. But for the thousands of folks that do, this will not be the last time we see our public landscape torn about over a product so commonplace as beer.
Stephen Viz is a one-year MBA candidate and graduate of Holy Cross College. Hailing from Orland Park, Illinois, his columns are all trains of thoughts, and he can be found at either Decio Cafe or in Mendoza. He can be reached at [email protected] or on Twitter at @StephenViz.
The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.