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US Beer – Carbs and Barbs

d=”standfirst”>It started out as a spat of name-calling between America’s two biggest brewers but it degenerated into an expensive farce. Has the joke backfired on Anheuser-Busch? asks Jon Rees

IT HAPPENS in playgrounds all the time: someone takes a little gentle teasing the wrong way and retaliates in kind and before you know it they’re tearing each other’s hair out. When some of the world’s biggest brewers behave in the same way, though, the consequences can be striking.

It all began when the world’s largest brewer, America’s Anheuser-Busch, took exception to an advertising campaign from its nearest rival, Miller Brewing. Miller’s ads for its Miller Lite, lowcarbohydrate brand poked fun at Anheuser-Busch’s mantra that its Budweiser brand is the “King of Beers” by claiming Miller is the “president of beers”, while proclaiming “This is America! We don’t kow tow to a bunch of tiarawearing crumpet eaters.”

The Miller ads were part of a series of advertisements pitting the company’s Miller Lite and Miller Genuine Draft beers against AnheuserBusch’s Michelob Ultra, Bud Light and Budweiser brands. But knowing how to respond to such things is the tricky bit: should the bigger brewer ignore its rival, reply in kind, or try to blast it out of the water? Ignoring the ads from Miller was probably not an option because the danger is that consumers would be hearing only one message and any lack of response could be interpreted as weakness. So Anheuser-Busch decided to respond, but the scale and tenor of its response has created a host of new issues, months after the initial ads aired, which the brewer has to deal with. It made a series of ads defending its brand while pointing out that Miller – a brand which US consumers have grown up with – is no longer American. 


Now the provenance of a brand, an intangible thing, can always be disputed (Guinness, that quintessential Irish drink, is owned by London-based Diageo, for example) but one thing is for sure, and that is that Miller is no longer owned by an American company. It was sold by Philip Morris to South African Brewers in 2002, which created a new company, quoted on the London Stock Exchange, called SABMiller.  

However, a federal judge ordered Anheuser-Busch to pull posters which stated that Miller is owned by SABMiller from the liquor stores where they were displayed. Following months of volleying ads back and forth, Anheuser-Busch succeeded in December in getting two of the main television networks in the US, CBS and NBC, to stop running three commercials for Miller because they disparaged Anheuser-Busch brands or conveyed unsubstantiated claims. The networks said they would continue to run four other Miller beer commercials that Anheuser-Busch had also complained about.  

Truth and justice

The Miller spots showed consumers comparing beers and said the Miller beers had more flavour. Anheuser-Busch said the results were flawed; the brewer also filed complaints with CBS over ads from another rival, Coors, which that brewer subsequently decided to pull. Competition is the lifeblood of American business, but companies like Coors and SABMiller are now on notice from Michael J. Owens, vicepresident of sales and marketing for AnheuserBusch, that, “We will fight for the truth in advertising.” 

For its part, Miller pointed out that the networks were not commentating on the taste claims themselves, but saying that some commercials could be misinterpreted as making additional claims. Meanwhile, Coors said it did not want to get caught up in a pointless debate about ads which had already served their purpose. 

However, Anheuser-Busch was about to discover that it was not the only one prepared to fight for the truth. Now a consumer watchdog, the influential Center for Science in the Public Interest, has attacked Anheuser-Busch in a series of complaints to federal regulators and the Beer Institute trade group. 

The CSPI’s ire has been provoked by Anheuser-Busch’s commercials featuring beerstealing football referees who lie to and run from the police, arguing that the ads depict lawlessness and should not be shown on television. The CSPI says the spots violate the Beer Institute’s voluntary codes barring ads that “portray or imply illegal behaviour”. 

The commercials are all part of its war with Miller. There are spoofs of Miller ads showing referees who penalise drinkers of AnheuserBusch’s Budweiser and Bud Light brands, replacing that beer with Miller Lite and Miller Genuine Draft. 

Anheuser-Busch’s ads suggest the referees are stealing the Bud Light for themselves. The CSPI argues that, “Though done in a jocular manner, the ads clearly run foul of the guidelines.” So what was Anheuser-Busch’s response? That it was all a big joke – just like Miller’s claim to be the “president of beers”, perhaps? Anheuser-Busch decided it was time to rediscover its sense of humour; not unreasonably, perhaps, in the face of some very po-faced criticism. “We disagree with your assertions that these ads promote illegal activity‚” said the brewer in a letter responding to CSPI’s claims, pointing out that the ads are “clearly meant to be a spoof of the spots currently being run by our competitor. We believe consumers understand that the activities shown in the commercials are not real, but rather part of the over-the-top humour that makes the spots funny”. 

Beer commercials are traditionally some of the most entertaining on US television, said Anheuser-Busch, describing the CSPI as an “anti-alcohol group‚ which routinely tries to take all the fun out of beer advertising”.

Certainly, CSPI clearly did not see the funny side: “Since when are theft, lying to police and evading search or arrest legal or responsible activities?” it said, noting that, “Crime is no joke, nor is the subtext of obtaining one’s beer through underhand means.”

Sucker punchline 

It has written to the Federal Trade Commission, asking for it to help force the beer industry to strengthen its codes on self-regulation. The dispute continues – and it all stemmed from that cheeky little ad campaign from Miller.

Meanwhile, the independent consultancy, Emergence, has published its annual awards for the top 10 branding blunders. Anheuser-Busch came in at number six for its response to the Miller commercials: “Instead of taking care of business as usual, Anheuser-Busch has been on its heels and actually may have brought more attention to its competitor by engaging in this feud‚” said the judges. But the ultimate arbiter is sales and so far it seems the joke’s on Anheuser-Busch – sales of Miller Lite have risen since the feuding began, while sales of Bud Light have fallen.

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