Anheuser-Busch, the parent company of Bud Light, received two important letters last week.
One letter was from the office of Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, announcing that he was launching a Senate investigation into the brand. The other letter was from the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), which rates companies based on their commitment to LGBTQ safety and equality. The organization let Anheuser-Busch know that their Corporate Equality Index score had been suspended, effective immediately.
Despite the wildly different updates each letter contained, they were both actually supported by the same basic argument. Earlier this year, Anheuser-Busch partnered with trans activist and influencer Dylan Mulvaney on a short sequence of social media posts, which enraged several outspoken conservative pundits and public figures, including the likes of Kid Rock and Dan Crenshaw.
This resulted in both ridiculous stunts — like Kid Rock tearfully shooting cases of Bud Light in an empty field — and dangerously transphobic rhetoric, such as when Townhall.com columnist Derek Hunter deemed it the “groomer of beers.”
As the controversy over the one-off social media partnership between Mulvaney and Bud Light continued to escalate, customers on both sides of the political aisle waited for a response from the brand. Would it again become the concert rider beer of choice for conservative country stars like Travis Tritt? Or would it continue to be the brand that produces rainbow-patterned aluminum bottles for Pride Month?
Eventually, in an effort to do both, the brand did neither.
“We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer,” Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth said in an April 14 statement titled “Our Responsibility to America.”
This vague statement masquerading as a tepid call for unity simply angered everyone.
He said the company has “a proud history supporting our communities, military, first responders, sports fans and hard-working Americans everywhere,” and that he would “continue to work tirelessly to bring great beers to consumers across our nation.”
This vague statement masquerading as a tepid call for unity simply angered everyone who was invested — resulting in last week’s rush in the Anheuser-Busch mailroom.
Cruz, along with Sen. Marsha Blackburn, R-Tenn., wrote that they wanted the Beer Institute’s Code Compliance Review Board, which oversees the brewing industry, to open an investigation into Anheuser-Busch’s “recent and ongoing marketing partnership with Dylan Mulvaney” to determine whether the campaign violated the Institute’s code “prohibiting marketing to individuals younger than the legal drinking age.”
The letter read, in part:
The evidence detailed below overwhelmingly shows that Dylan Mulvaney’s audience skews significantly younger than the legal drinking age and violates the Beer Institute’s Advertising/Marketing Code and Buying Guidelines. We would urge you, in your capacity at Anheuser-Busch, to avoid a lengthy investigation by the Beer Institute by instead having Anheuser-Busch publicly sever its relationship with Dylan Mulvaney, publicly apologize to the American people for marketing alcoholic beverages to minors, and direct Dylan Mulvaney to remove any Anheuser-Busch content from his social media platforms.
As several political writers, including Huffington Post’s Ron Dicker, have pointed out, the nature of Cruz and Blackburn’s request — as well the fact that Whitworth actually chairs the organization they’re petitioning — make it seem like a political stunt (and one in which they purposely misgendered Mulvaney, for the record).
However, the letter from Jay Brown, senior vice president of programs at the HRC, struck a more serious tone.
As CNN Business reported, Brown told the publication that “when we saw the company working with Dylan, that was a good sign. It was a sign of inclusion. What we were really disturbed by was the company’s reaction once the backlash started happening.”
In April, Brown sent Anheuser-Busch an initial request, asking the company to make a public statement in support of Mulvaney and the trans community and to offer transgender inclusion training to its executives. He also asked to meet with the brand’s leadership team.
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“We are happy to engage in a dialogue,” Brown told CNN. “And if it’s not those three things, to figure out what might make the most sense.”
Then last week, as reported by CNN, Brown sent another letter informing the company of the suspension of its rating.
It’s not necessarily a permanent designation. Brown noted that the company could be reinstated if the HRC’s concerns were addressed within the next three months. So far this week, Anheuser-Busch has remained fairly quiet, both in response to this demand and the one from Cruz.
While it’s unclear how the company will move forward, one thing is certain. While the so-called “culture war” is itself largely overblown, the Bud Light controversy shows that if brands are going to enter the fray, they’ve eventually got to pick a side — or risk alienating both.
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