Rainbow marketing gone wrong and betrayed values
In 2023 the beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev (AB InBev) has been dealing with a steep sales slump of one of its biggest beers brands, Bud Light.
Bud Light caused a controversy when it entered into a partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney, 26. Its decision to send a customized can to her sparked a transphobic backlash and alienated the core customer base. AB InBev’s subsequent response then angered members of the LGBTQ community.
Ms. Mulvany is a Broadway actor and influencer who has spent the past year documenting her gender transition to a massive audience of old and new fans.
Months after Bud Light was featured in a social media promotion by Ms. Mulvaney, the beer giant is still dealing with the fallout.
Bud Light has faced a boycott from some conservative commentators and celebrities as its sales have plummeted and two of its marketing executives have gone on leave. It was also criticized by some in the L.G.B.T.Q. community for its tepid response to the backlash.
The criticism of Bud Light, amid other complaints about brand partnerships with transgender people, comes as Republican state lawmakers are proposing legislation that seeks to regulate the lives of young transgender people, restrict drag shows in a way that could include performances by transgender people and require schools to out transgender students to their parents.
Bud Light has become an unexpected symbol in these efforts.
Last month, AB InBev announced that its US revenue fell 10% in the second quarter, hampered by falling Bud Light sales.
The controversy exposes AB InBev’s exploitation of values and communities.
A slide from AB InBev’s latest quarterly investor presentation reveals how the beer giant is now distancing itself from the LGBTQIA community – after having targeted, co-opted, and exploited pride in particular and the LGBTQIA community in general for many years to push their products and rainbow-wash their brands.
How did the controversy unfold?
The controversy began on April 1, when Ms. Mulvaney posted a video on her Instagram account, where she has 1.8 million followers, to promote a Bud Light contest.
According to the New York Times, Ms. Mulvaney, 26, is popular on TikTok, where she has more than 10.8 million followers and has been documenting her transition online. She celebrated a full year of her “Days of Girlhood” series in March with a live show at Rockefeller Center called “Dylan Mulvaney’s Day 365 Live!”
Her Bud Light promotional post was less than a minute long and was mostly about a $15,000 giveaway that the company sponsored during March Madness – a college basketball tournament in the United States during the month of March. She mentions that the company sent her a tallboy can with her face on it to celebrate the 365-day milestone.
A culture war ensued.
The video began making the rounds among transphobes and conservatives who expressed anger about AB InBev “shoving identity politics down our throats”. Notably, Ms Mulvany’s video is rather unremarkable, one-off, and a social-media-only promotion.
Prominent conservative voices issued calls for a Bud Light boycott. Attacks against the transgender community is a staple of the culture war in the U.S. In this controversy celebrities engaged, such as musician Kid Rock, who posted a video of himself shooting a stack of Bud Light cases in April. This video now has over 52 million views in X (formerly Twitter).
VinePair revealed how right-wing operatives from the Federalist Society, the Barstool Sports media universe, and anonymous trolls from 4Chan were targeting two women: AB InBev vice-president of corporate communications Jennifer Morris, and Bud Light vice president of marketing Alissa Heinerscheid.
Calls for boycott had real-life repercussion for AB InBev because Bud Light’s sales declined. As a reaction, AB InBev abandoned its purported support for the LGBTQIA+ community and announced in late April that two executives involved in the marketing campaign were taking a leave of absence.
In early May the beer giant informed it would focus its marketing campaigns more on sports and music, and on “platforms that all our consumers love.”
AB InBev abandons a failed marketing strategy instead of standing up for the values it claimed
According to New York Times reporting, Ms. Mulvaney addressed the Bud Light controversy on TikTok on June 29, saying that she had faced stalking and personal attacks in the months since her Instagram video was posted.
What transpired from that video was more bullying and transphobia than I could have ever imagined,” she said, as per the New York Times.
I’ve been followed, and I have felt a loneliness that I wouldn’t wish on anyone.”Dylan Mulvaney, transgender influencer
Bud Light, she said, had not reached out to her.
AB InBev is targeting the LGBTQIA+ community to drive alcohol sales and maximize its profits. For instance, Alissa Heinerscheid, vice president of marketing for Bud Light, said in an interview before the controversy that Bug Light needed to become more inclusive.
The LGBTQIA+ community in the U.S. has more than a $1 trillion in annual purchasing power, according to a 2019 report by LGBT Capital, a financial services company.
The brand is in decline,” Ms. Heinerscheid said on the “Make Yourself at Home” podcast in March 2023, according to the New York Times.
It’s been in decline for a really long time. And if we do not attract young [alcohol users] to come and [consume] this brand, there will be no future for Bud Light.”Alissa Heinerscheid, vice president of marketing, Bud Light
But as the controversy broke out, AB InBev sent Ms. Heinerscheid and Daniel Blake, who oversees marketing for AB InBev’s mainstream brands, on leave.
AB InBev was clearly thirsting after the money of LGBTQIA+ people.
But when it was time to stand up for values and people, AB InBev chose profits.
In the face of a conservative outrage as manufactured and predictable as it is grotesque, the beer giant’s executives have opted for capitulation over courage,” writes Dave Infante, in VinePair.Dave Infante, contributing editor and columnist, VinePair
VinePair chronicled how absent the beer giant was from the controversy, having made “nearly no public-facing moves to address the transphobia and bigotry it had unleashed.” Early on, the beer producer issued a statement noting that it “works with hundreds of influencers across our brands,” and that the custom can it sent Ms. Mulvaney was “not for sale to the general public.” Bud Light’s social channels went dark for nearly two weeks.
It’s a long-running AB InBev marketing fiction laid particularly bare by the vitriol the company’s own flagship beer summoned through the first half of this month. But make no mistake: This was also the company turning the dial,” writes Mr. Infante.
Bud Light advanced a position that trans people (in this case, Mulvaney) and trans allies (her millions of followers and their collective billions of potential media impressions) were worth pandering to, only to cut bait when the sharks began to circle. … you can almost see the CEO turning his back on the trans community and his own staff and pleading with the braying rabble for a do-over.”Dave Infante, contributing editor and columnist, VinePair
Rainbow-washing by AB InBev fuels alcohol harm in LGBTQIA+ community
The larger story is how marketing targeting vulnerable communities, such as people in the LGBTQIA+ community is causing serious harm.
Already in June 2021, Movendi International reported on how alcohol companies, including AB InBev, were exploiting Pride Month and the LGBTQIA+ community – causing growing concerns.
Hidden behind the rainbow-washing and Big Alcohol sponsorships and partnerships is the disproportionate harm alcohol products are causing LGBTQIA+ people.
We know that LGBTQ+ face more mental health conditions than their straight counterparts. It’s simply about money and money made from people struggling the most,” said Sean Paul Mahoney, as per Workit Health.
Yet they continue to do it anyway.”Sean Paul Mahoney, author, co-host Queer Mental Condition podcast, recovery mentor and peer support specialist, Portland, Oregon
The evidence is mounting:
- Boyd and colleagues found that bisexual and “not sure” U.S. adults are more likely to have a severe alcohol use disorders and tobacco use disorders.
- The National Institute on Drug Abuse in the U.S. reports LGBTQIA+ people suffer from greater mental health issues and substance use problems as a result of the stigma and discrimination they face.
- A study reported by Movendi International shows almost one in three Irish gay and bisexual men suffer from alcohol use disorder, which is about three times more than the average for the Irish population.
- The pandemic has worsened the situation. Evidence from the U.S. indicates the ongoing coronavirus crisis has accelerated harm caused by the alcohol industry in the LGBTQ community.
The Bud Light controversy exposes AB InBev’s rainbow-washing. It is but one example of the beer giant’s use of unethical and harmful business practices to maximize profits.
The New York Times: “Behind the Backlash Against Bud Light“