A considerable number of Americans appear to believe that Bud Light, a beer owned since 2008 by the Belgian multinational corporation Anheuser-Busch InBev, stands for a set of values that does not include transgenderism. This became clear this month after the transgender activist Dylan Mulvaney posted on Instagram an informal video advertisement for Bud Light that featured a photo of a promotional tallboy can sporting an image of Ms. Mulvaney’s face.
You may have caught wind of what followed: widespread outrage from social conservatives, calls for boycotts of the beer by country stars and rappers (including Kid Rock, who released a video in which he destroyed cases of Bud Light with an assault rifle), a significant drop in Bud Light’s sales in one week and the loss of about $5 billion in market capitalization. This week, Bud Light’s owner announced that two of its executives were taking a leave of absence.
Other than some passing discomfort for shareholders, everything about what I hope no one will be tempted to call Bud Light-gate has an air of unreality. In addition to Bud Light, InBev owns Corona, Stella Artois, Michelob, Beck’s, Modelo and many other beer brands. Given the sweeping homogenization of global corporate culture and business practices, InBev’s politics are roughly the same as those of all major companies: a combination of cutthroat economic libertarianism and progressive human resources-style “sensitivity” with which few Americans wholly identify.
Despite the passionate claims about its unique identity and its conservative political profile, the only value driving Bud Light, or any other consumer good available on a global scale, is the remorseless logic of shareholder value. That makes it hard to coherently express your politics with your beer preferences.
This was not always the case. In the 1970s, when Burt Reynolds and Jerry Reed set out from Texarkana to Atlanta to deliver a truckload of Coors Banquet in the movie “Smokey and the Bandit” and the country singer Johnny Paycheck was composing dithyrambs in praise of “Colorado Kool-Aid” (“Well, it’s a can of Coors brewed from a mountain stream / It’ll set you head on fire an’ make your kidneys scream”), there was a real sense in which Coors was a right-wing beer.
The Coors family, which generally considered Richard Nixon an embarrassing squish, opposed unionization of its breweries, supported Ronald Reagan and donated large sums to the nascent Heritage Foundation. Unpasteurized, lacking preservatives and unavailable in Eastern states, Coors was alternately regarded as raffish and déclassé, promoted by cowboy stars and denounced by the gay rights leader Harvey Milk. In the words of a television spot from 1979: “It’s not city beer. It’s Coors.”
My maternal grandfather, a toolmaker at Buick, would no more have allowed someone to drink Coors in his presence in defiance of a union boycott than he would have tolerated a foreign car parked in his driveway. For some of my other older male relations in Michigan, Coors was embraced as an exotic symbol of Western manliness, a welcome alternative not only to Pabst Blue Ribbon and other staid Midwestern brands but also to the United Auto Workers and what they saw as its feckless paternalism. A friend who grew up in Washington confirms my impression that during the 1980s, serving Coors was unthinkable in respectable middle-class liberal social circles.
Nowadays there are few widely available consumer products that can plausibly be identified as right wing. Even Chick-fil-A, whose charitable foundation has funded groups in favor of conversion therapy and criminalizing homosexuality, announced in 2019 that it would stop such funding.
Rather than acknowledge Bud Light’s place in a faceless globalized chain of ownership, advertisements for the beer attempt to underscore its supposedly distinctive American and working-class character. Some years ago a series of advertisements featured the Bud Knight, a character who figured in faux-medieval settings alongside a royal personage known as the Dilly Dilly King. In one spot, the king enters a tavern and orders “Bud Lights for everyone,” eliciting cries of approval from the assembled crowd. A lone man informs his majesty that he would prefer a “nice mead,” an order that is amended, with ascending fussiness, to an “autumnal mead” that must be “malty and full-bodied.” Instead of being served his preferred beverage, the man is placed in a pillory by the Bud Knight. The implication is that Bud Light is for ordinary decent people who just want to have a good time with their friends, not smug effete connoisseurs.
These commercials no doubt served as a winking affirmation of what some Bud Light customers perceive as their anti-elitist worldview. But the ads do not represent InBev — its stated or implied commitments — in any detectable way. It is marketing all the way down. To use the language of computer programming, Bud Light is a “skin,” a user interface that overlays the underlying software and hardware of generic large-scale corporate profit-seeking. This state of affairs is often obscured, perhaps because it is not human-scaled. (It’s telling that when Kid Rock expressed his opposition to the Mulvaney spot, he denounced not InBev but Anheuser-Busch.)
Of all the responses to the Mulvaney affair, the most clueless was an advertisement for something called Ultra Right Beer, an astonishingly expensive alternative to Bud Light — $20 for a six-pack — that bills itself as “100 percent woke-free” beer for people “who know which restroom to use.” On its website, the purveyors of Ultra Right urge customers to cease “giving money to companies who hate our values.” But in our homogenized corporate culture, all major companies “hate” the ostensible “values” espoused by the creators of Ultra Right — or are completely indifferent to them.
In the world envisioned by Ultra Right, one in which corporations had political identities that transcended profit-seeking and liability minimization, InBev would have responded to its critics either by immediately firing the executives responsible for the marketing campaign or by swiftly offering an unconditional defense of transgender rights. Instead, InBev did neither: It left it to the market to decide.
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