As a longtime PR veteran, I have always been skeptical about brands engaging social media stars for ads, social posts, or campaigns.
Without being too specific, about six years ago, I helped coordinate a publicity initiative on a global issue, where an advertising nonprofit engaged an Instagram star as a spokesperson.
For me, alarm bells went off.
We knew nothing about this person, only that she was a teenage social influencer who had several million followers and spoke out about the cause we were promoting. I went along with it after I voiced concern, and well, because it wasn’t my decision to hire her.
The day before we launched the initiative, an “I told you so” controversy erupted. Turns out the teen in question had a history of reposting some inflammatory remarks from her mother, who was an ultra-right-wing xenophobe and anti-Semite. We had to scramble hard and fast to find a replacement on very short notice.
Since that incident six years ago, times have changed — somewhat. Desperate to reach the almost untouchable demographic that comprises Gen Z or zoomers, brands are grabbing whoever they can from this generation’s stars of TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram in hopes of striking gold. The more provocative they are, the more media attention these influencers create for the brand — and that comes with consequences.
Sometimes, I still get to say, “I told you so.” Cosmetics company Morphe snapped up young social influencers Jeffree Star and James Charles, and then the bottom fell out. Star was accused of being a racist, and there were sexual misconduct claims logged against Star and Charles, which negatively affected the company’s bottom line. That’s what it’s all about in the first place.
Nevertheless, some brands still choose to roll the dice.
This brings us to Anheuser-Busch’s engagement with actress, social influencer, and transgender rights activist Dylan Mulvaney. The star has 10.8 million followers on TikTok, and in March she celebrated the one-year anniversary of her transition. As part of the celebration, the beer giant sent Mulvaney Bud Light cans with her image on them, and she posted a digital ad promoting the beer.
In this situation, the theory of a social influencer damaging the reputation of a brand was turned upside down. It was Mulvaney who turned out to be too good for Budweiser after the beer behemoth refused to defend Mulvaney from a deluge of vitriol leveled against her.
All hell broke loose for Budweiser and for the innocent Mulvaney. Anti-trans invective continues to be directed at Mulvaney. Digital videos of transphobes ridding themselves of Bud Light started popping up on social media, along with threatening messages directed at the trans community. These narrow-minded beer drinkers called for a boycott of Bud Light.
Kid Rock, no friend to our community, posted a video of him shooting a rifle at cases of Bud Light — there are so many things wrong with that, I don’t even know where to begin. Texas right-wing Republican Congressman Dan Crenshaw made a video saying he was going to throw out all his cans of Bud Light. When he opened his refrigerator, there was no Bud Light. Being impulsive is clearly not Crenshaw’s forte. Ted Nugent also called for a boycott ... some of you are reading this, and saying, "Who's he?" Exactly!
The decision for Bud Light to associate itself with Mulvaney was a good, gutsy call for a brand wanting to reach a younger, more open-minded audience. In this case, Mulvaney was a brilliant choice, and the decision showed a stodgy old brand embracing love and acceptance. The CMO of Bud Light recently said, paraphrasing here, that the company needed to veer away from a stale brand image. That's an image more associated with old-timers like Kid Rock and Nugent, and with Mulvaney, it took a giant step.
Bud Light was getting massive PR for its partnership with Mulvaney, and initially, it probably met expectations of engaging a younger demographic. The old-timers and bigots, however, started yelling boycott while younger audiences praised the move.
Speaking from experience, and validating what other experts say, boycotts rarely work. That's because they peak fast and then just go away. The trick for a brand is not to get caught up in the swirl of debate around the protests. It's better just to remain quiet.
That's what Nike did when it signed Colin Kaepernick. Sales for Nike spiked. Racists said they were boycotting Nike because Kaepernick took a knee. The protesters called themselves "true patriots," because rather than take a knee during the national anthem, they stood, barely, on their feet, chugging Budweisers — the American way to "proudly we ale."
At first, Bud Light's parent company made a statement that seemed to tacitly support its involvement with Mulvaney. “Anheuser-Busch works with hundreds of influencers across our brands as one of many ways to authentically connect with audiences across various demographics," a spokesperson said. "From time to time we produce unique commemorative cans for fans and for brand influencers, like Dylan Mulvaney. This commemorative can was a gift to celebrate a personal milestone and is not for sale to the general public.”
The company should have left it there.
If you'll recall, former Disney CEO Bob Chapek at first came out in opposition to Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill, and then again, after threats of boycotts, he came back out and waffled. It was a huge mistake that helped cost him his job.
Now comes Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth, who couldn't leave well enough alone. There's nothing that consumers loathe more than a brand that's wishy-washy. In a press release entitled, "Our Responsibility to America" (PR guy is SMH!), Whitworth blathered, "We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”
He then said this gag-worthy sentence: “Moving forward, I will continue to work tirelessly to bring great beers to consumers across our nation.”
Yes, Whitworth is magically going to have Kid Rock and Mulvaney do an ad together. Budweiser is no longer known as the King of Beers, but the Froth of Friendliness. As you can imagine, his comments made the haters dig deeper, and now all hope is lost for the company, because he did not speak out against hate.
In essence, Whitworth mimicked the horrifying comments Donald Trump made after a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Va., when he wrongly said there were "very fine people on both sides."
Whitworth's statement was indefensible, and it exacerbates the disgust for trans people that is seething in Republican-led state legislatures all across the country.
Whitworth's approach to legitimatize the wrong side was validated when Donald Trump Jr. came to the company's defense. Middle-aged, angry, homo- and transphobe Trump Jr. said the boycotts should end because “We looked into the political giving and lobbying history of Anheuser-Busch. And guess what? They actually support Republicans." Trump Jr. also claimed that the company supported GOP right-wing nut Sen. J.D. Vance of Ohio and the ultimate waffler himself, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
To try to be fair here, Anheuser-Busch has done the requisite Pride Month ad blitzes and even had a commercial with Joe Rogan and Amy Schumer attending a same-sex wedding. However, according to Newsweek, "Some data shows the company gave even more to anti-LGBTQ lawmakers. According to a database compiled by Accountable for Equality Action — an LGBTQ advocacy group — Anheuser-Busch has donated some $107,000 to state lawmakers who have supported anti-trans legislation since 2015."
Newsweek added, "In the 2022 election cycle, more than 62 percent of the PAC's overall contributions went to Republicans, compared to just 37 percent toward Democrats, according to data compiled by OpenSecrets."
Then Anheuser-Busch poured itself another flat beer for us, and a hefty pint for the very conservatives it's supporting. Over the weekend, it released a "pro-American" video. It looked like Ronald Reagan's "morning in America" campaign ad from 1984. There was one person of color, Budweiser's signature Clydesdale running from one small white town to another, and 22 years after the fact, it shamelessly showed downtown Manhattan, evoking 9/11.
I don't have to tell you that it made no reference to the struggles of the trans community.
Remember that special beer can sent to Mulvaney with her picture on it to celebrate her womanhood? Of course you don't, because the right wing took over the conversation, and rather than let it die out, Anheuser-Busch and Whitworth and their lily-white ad have turned it into a bar crawl of misanthropes gone wrong.
Rather than come to the defense of a transgender woman, rather than defend a noble campaign that sought to reflect acceptance, and rather than let the campaign with Mulvaney speak for itself, Anheuser-Busch poured alcohol all over an extremist's fire, and that will continue to singe our community.
Maybe the worst thing the company did was leave Mulvaney all alone, twisting in the wind, abandoning any kind of defense of her. That is an utterly repugnant reflection of the brand.
Anheuser-Busch, weakly, did not stand up against hate. And while boycotts don't work, they do make a statement. It's not Kid Rock and Ted Nugent who should be boycotting Bud Light — it should be us.
Views expressed in The Advocate’s opinion articles are those of the writers and do not necessarily represent the views of The Advocate or our parent company, equalpride.