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The Bud Light Fiasco: How AB InBev Fell for the Gamergate Playbook

Any story that prominently features Kid Rock ought to begin on April Fool’s Day, and this one does.

It was a year ago Monday that trans influencer Dylan Mulvaney posted a brief video to her Instagram Stories showing off a custom Bud Light can with her face on it. Saturday, April 1, 2023, to be exact. Unremarkable though it was, the post quickly made it to Twitter (it was still called that, way back when, even though Elon Musk had acquired it six months prior), where a roster of too-online right-wing reactionaries began whipping themselves into the usual transphobic froth. Disturbing stuff, but unfortunately de rigueur.

On April 4, 2023, though, Kid Rock posted a video to the social-media platform showing himself shooting stacks of Bud Light with an assault rifle while wearing a MAGA hat. With that, the whole vibe shifted. Things began to spiral.

You might be tired of reading about the Bud Light fiasco — a term I prefer to “backlash” or “boycott,” for reasons I’ll come back to — some 12 months later. Having covered the situation from that first fateful weekend a year ago, I’m certainly tired of writing about it. Still, on the eve of this historic shit show’s first anniversary, it seems only proper to gaze once again on the plight of America’s longtime best-selling beer. After all, parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev (ABI) has lost astonishing amounts of revenue, market share, and stature since the Bud Light fiasco first kicked off. The least we can do is reflect on what it’s shown us about the company, and the country.

What you have to understand, above all, is that this has happened before. Not in the beer business, and not at the same scale, but still: There’s plenty of precedent for aggrieved weirdos marshaling misinformation and bad-faith arguments online in order to push back against social progress and bring flat-footed corporations to heel. In fact, the playbook for this reactionary gambit was codified nearly a decade prior to the Bud Light fiasco, in 2014, when a group of trolls sallied forth from 4chan and Reddit to coordinate a leaderless harassment campaign on social media against women, minorities, and any corporations that appeared to sympathize with them.

This was Gamergate: a circus of bigoted male revanchism lashing out under false pretenses of “ethics in gaming journalism.” Nominally sophisticated Fortune 500 companies like Intel, Mercedes-Benz, and Adobe found themselves in a culture war as a loose coalition of men’s-rights activists, hack right-wing journalists, and political-correctness obsessives demanded they pull their ads from publications that were accurately covering their “movement” for the vile sham that it was. Instead of telling their conservative critics to get bent, those corporations bent the knee — which, of course, only proved to those critics that the gambit was working.

“Gamergate is occasionally framed as a battle for the soul of the internet between a diverse, progressive set and an angry collection of white males who feel displaced,” wrote the journalist Charlie Warzel in 2019 in a five-year retrospective on the flashpoint for The New York Times. “And it is that, too. But its most powerful legacy is as proof of concept of how to wage a post-truth information war.”

Reactionaries have deployed this playbook so many times in American culture since 2014 that “everything is Gamergate” has entered the internet lexicon as a catch-all response to this or that turn of the conservative outrage mill. Racists used the same tactics to protest a Black lead in a “Star Wars” movie in 2015; sexists ran it back again in 2019 to smear a female lead in “Captain Marvel.” Warzel argued persuasively that Donald Trump’s entire schtick before and after the 2016 election was powered by the same fig-leaf routine. It’s impossible to miss the Gamergate playbook once you understand how it works.

From the outset of the Bud Light fiasco last April, it was clear that ABI did not understand how it worked. It allowed its critics to set the narrative — that Bud Light was “indoctrinating children,” that Mulvaney was a “groomer,” and so on — for two full weeks before meaningfully addressing the nakedly transphobic vitriol spewing forth from right-wing operatives and cynical opportunists. In forfeiting that early opportunity to stand behind Mulvaney, the firm showed weakness. When North American chief executive Brendan Whitworth finally issued a substantive statement on the situation a full two weeks later, on April 14, 2023, it showed that he and ABI’s comms team were in way over their heads.

In a Friday afternoon press release titled “Our Responsibility to America,” ABI simped to tired tropes and declined to disavow the disingenuous agitators and braying transphobes at its gates. “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people,” wrote Whitworth. “We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”

Swing and a miss. “There’s no way for a corporation like ABI to both-sides its way out of a situation this controversial,” I predicted at the time. “The company just tried to ride the fence, and it’s gonna get splinters in its ass.”

I was right. Right-wing media outlets began framing the story as Woke Corporation against the exasperated Volk. Taking the cue, mainstream publications mostly stuck to view-from-nowhere analysis that flattened the situation’s basic moral stakes into just another clash of business and politics. With the help of Florida’s Republican Governor Ron DeSantis, and Senators Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN), conservative critics transmogrified their explicitly transphobic temper tantrum against Mulvaney into a campaign to prevent Bud Light from advertising to underage drinkers, squandering police officers’ pensions, and smuggling wokeness into American fridges.

This was Gamergate all over again, and boy, did it work. By late June, ABI marketing leads supposedly responsible for the custom one-off can for Mulvaney had unceremoniously exited the company after a misogynistic and antisemitic smear campaign. ABI’s typically lockstepped wholesalers griped all summer about the politicization of the once-proud flagship by foreign-born and New York-based execs. In November, its U.S. chief marketing officer resigned.

Unlike the corporate bloodletting, which took place behind closed doors, the American drinking public had a clear sightline on ABI’s marketing pivot. All through the year, the company tried to triangulate a safe harbor in the imagined political center, and its erstwhile flagship tacked clumsily toward its conservative critics as a result.

Bud Light’s first big spot for Summer 2023 was a gun-shy, instantly doomed attempt to bury the backlash with halcyon backyard-barbecue footage. Nothing doing. In October, the brand signed a $100 million deal with the Ultimate Fighting Championship, adding MAGA-friendly asshole Dana White to its Bud Light defense corps. In November 2023, self-avowed “total libertarian” country star Zach Bryan inked a deal; in February 2024, comedian Shane Gillis, hero to white America’s irony-poisoned nihilists, performative free-speech warriors, and bog-standard jagoffs, did likewise. The performers’ personal politics might be ambiguous (or not; Bryan spoke out against Bud Light-related transphobia in May 2023, though not since), but ABI’s new target audience is pretty clear. In supposedly trying to find the middle of the road over the past 12 months, the mighty macrobrewer’s marketing choices have steered its biggest brand further right. Apolitically, of course.

All the while, conservatives have openly celebrated the chaos they’d sown at the world’s biggest beer company in the name of keeping “politics” out of beer. (Nevermind that ABI’s political spending is both inherently political, and demonstrably conservative. We’re post-truth, remember?) Bud Light sales actually stabilized fairly quickly after the boycott began, but they never recovered from the early losses. U.S shipments were down 12.7 percent compared to 2022, and U.S. revenues were down 9.5 percent in the same period. Constellation Brands and Molson Coors — which successfully faced down and dispensed with a similar backlash just a month after ABI’s began — made remarkable share gains all year, and continue to do so. By some measures, Constellation’s Modelo Especial has toppled Bud Light as the country’s best-selling beer.

This has all shocked last April’s fool, Kid Rock. “If anyone’s still spending time on this, you’re clearly fucking bored; find something better to do,” he told Joe Rogan on the latter’s podcast in an interview aired late last month, adding that he was surprised to learn people would “sit around and think … ‘follow what Kid Rock does.’” That makes two of us.

To write this column, I reviewed all my coverage of this dismal affair from the past year. Early on, I was skeptical of the potency any conservative backlash against Bud Light might have, because consumer boycotts are notoriously difficult to pull off, particularly against diversified multinational corporations. Even given my familiarity with the Gamergate playbook, and my reporting on how Republicans have weaponized the existence of trans people to drive their base to violence, I admit, I underestimated how far this would go.

Maybe Twitter’s deliberate transformation into the cesspool of right-wing extremism now called under then-new owner Elon Musk provided Bud Light’s foes a fortuitous boost to spread the word. Or maybe the extent to which online culture now influences offline behavior (rather than the other way around) means that consumer boycotts will be more effective in the future than they have been in the past. I think the unexpected scope of the damage ABI has sustained in the U.S. over the past 12 months, though, is due mostly to the company’s mismanagement of both the Bud Light brand, and the crisis surrounding it.

Put another way: Rather than underestimating ABI’s opponents, I overestimated ABI.

Bud Light was never going to remain at the top of the heap forever. Its sales peaked in 2008 and have been sliding ever since. Before April 1, 2023, ABI had the unsexy task of keeping the throne warm and managing decline while laying the groundwork for Michelob Ultra’s ascent. Once Kid Rock triggered (ahem) the first major wave of transphobic outrage against the brand, that task certainly got harder. I don’t think there was a path forward for the macrobrewer that preserved Bud Light’s sales in the short term. It just chose the worst one.

Instead of quickly standing up to its bad-faith and bigoted attackers, it bent the knee, validating the hordes and alienating the rest of the country in the process. Ironically, this did bring people from across the political spectrum together — not to drink Bud Light, but to avoid it out of embarrassment and disgust.

That’s why I prefer to call it the Bud Light fiasco rather than terms like “boycott” or “backlash.” ABI has been complicit in its own undoing every step of the way. It allowed itself to get rolled by cruel bullies running a decade-old scam, then spent the past year begging them for another shot anyway. Bud Light wasn’t guaranteed to become the new Gamergate. ABI made it so.

🤯 Hop-ocalypse Now

Earlier this month, Molson Coors debuted a new campaign for Miller Lite based on the “Great Taste, Less Filling” tagline of yore. This version features J.J. Watt, Luke Wilson, and a bunch of other celebrities. What it doesn’t feature is two conventionally attractive women in push-up bras and not much else wrestling each other in the national male gaze, like a 2003 iteration of the campaign infamously did. Beer ads? Becoming less lecherous over time? Go figure.

📈 Ups…

68 percent of U.S. drinkers want modernized direct-to-consumer shipping, per a new poll from the Brewers Association and Sovos ShipCompliantCalifornia lawmakers are considering a bill that would create catering permits to enable brewers to pour at more special events… Congrats to the Brewers Association’s longtime events whiz, Nancy Johnson, on retiring after 30 years with the org…

📉 …and downs

The Federal Trade Commission alleged in a new report that major grocers did indeed participate in “greedflation”Sazerac Company bought BuzzBallz, get ready for more malt-based competition in the convenience channel… With Truly’s fermented version flailing, Boston Beer Co. will try a tequila-based extension…

The article The Bud Light Fiasco: How AB InBev Fell for the Gamergate Playbook appeared first on VinePair.

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