The boycott has quickly morphed into a promotional event for ‘anti-woke’ brands.
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At first, the flare-up over the Bud Light-sponsored Instagram post from transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney seemed likely to be short lived. The post was basically a one-off aimed specifically at Mulvaney’s social media following, and outrage over supposedly “woke” corporate behavior tends to flicker out by the next news cycle. So the fact that the kerfuffle ended up slogging on for a couple of weeks is worth unpacking. It exemplifies what anti-brand protests have become—and suggests that brands need to update their outrage-response playbooks.
The traditional core of the brand protest is of course the boycott, with the focus strictly on the brand: publicize its alleged shortcoming, apply marketplace pressure, force change. Think of labor activists drawing attention to Nike factories back in the 1990s, for example. The more recent practice of shaming companies for advertising in certain venues (from Breitbart to Twitter) similarly zeroes in on the brand in question.
But the Bud Light imbroglio demonstrates how a brand protest can morph into something that’s less a critique of a brand—and more about serving as a promotional event for its critics. In this case, that included not only a pile-on of politicians and pundits and random celebrities, but someone launching a new “ultra right” beer, and someone else promoting an app that warns you if you’re buying a “woke” brand. Bud Light practically becomes a bystander as all the erstwhile protesters jockey for attention. The whole episode shows how a brand protest is no longer about focusing negative attention on a specific target to a specific end. It’s about jumping on the bandwagon to push your own agenda.
Politicians arguably led the way. “The Mulvaney-Bud Light video essentially served as a jumping-off point for a different advertising campaign,” Washington Post political reporter Philip Bump wrote, “one in which conservatives use Bud Light as a foil for their own demonstrations of their right-wing bona fides.” In the political sphere, latching onto brands and corporate behavior as an excuse to push an anti-LGBTQ+ agenda has become routine.
But this seems partly a function of social media culture too. Think back to Sean Hannity fans posting videos of themselves destroying Keurigs when the coffee-pod brand stopped advertising on the Fox News host’s show. Or some Nike buyers burning sneakers because the company counted Colin Kaepernick among its sponsored athletes. These incidents seemed more about trying to go viral than trying to effect concrete change from a brand.
In a similar spirit, Kid Rock posted a video in which, without really explaining the context, he shot up a few cases of Bud Light and shouted, “Fuck Anheuser Busch!” Travis Tritt announced his discontent via Twitter, and a stream of randos took to the internet to seek viral fame through videos of themselves pouring A-B products down the drain. According to Axios, the most-shared articles on the subject came from right-wing sources like The Blaze and Daily Wire. But there was little if any articulation of any proposed plan or set of demands for changing A-B’s future corporate behavior. Most of the discourse was just signaling.
The more concrete responses shoved Bud Light even further into the background. Consider Ultra Right Beer. Former Trump campaign official Seth Weathers not only released a video of himself smashing a can of Bud Light with a bat, but also announced the creation of a new beer brand called Ultra Right (at $20 a six pack), which he promised will be “100 percent woke-free.” Also jumping on the news to promote itself: Conservative nonprofit Consumers’ Research, which announced a new service called Woke Alert: “Sign up for Woke Alerts to be notified when companies cave to the woke mob,” it promises, “so you know the brands attacking your values.” The handful of examples on its site include Jack Daniels (for including drag queens in an ad campaign two years ago) and, of course, Bud Light.
This is not to suggest that the response to the Mulvaney post was trivial. Quite the opposite. People literally called in bomb threats to Anheuser-Busch facilities. And what the critics are leveraging to get attention is, specifically, transphobia. As a comment on the state of cultural discourse, it’s alarming.
But as a matter of marketplace dynamics, there’s not much evidence of meaningful short-term harm to Bud Light sales, and few informed observers believe there will be much of a long-term threat to revenue. Some argue the attention will actually help the brand in the long run. A-B faces plenty of business challenges with a market evolving away from mass beer brands; but since this alleged controversy started, its share price (and roughly $130 billion valuation) is basically unchanged.
That said, A-B didn’t handle all this particularly well, putting out a bland statement attributed to CEO Brendan Whitworth, mostly repeating familiar cliches of caring about customers, and America. “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people,” goes the only marginally substantial passage. This read like a dodge to both the opportunistic critics, and to many LGBTQ+ consumers and allies. “I honestly think this was worse than saying nothing,” one beer-and-spirits industry analyst told Vox. “They just prolonged the news cycle another few days.”
For all this noise, the actual underlying complaint or demand wasn’t really clear. “Why do you care so much?” Howard Stern wondered aloud of Bud Light’s critics. “I don’t get it.” One answer is that most of these critics really don’t care all that much about Bud Light or the vagaries of its influencer marketing strategy. They care about their own agendas, and a can of beer with a transgender person’s image on it was just a handy prop.
—This article first appeared https://www.fastcompany.com
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