In early April, Bud Light sent an influencer named Dylan Mulvaney a handful of beers. Mulvaney, in turn, posted a video of herself dressed like Holly Golightly from Breakfast at Tiffany’s, using said beers to celebrate both March Madness and her first year of womanhood. One of the cans featured her image. It was part of a paid sponsorship deal and promotion for some sort of sweepstakes challenge where people can win $15,000 from Bud Light by sending in videos of themselves carrying a lot of beers.
This made some people very mad, and not because Holly Golightly wasn’t really a beer gal (her preference was the White Angel, a boozy mix of vodka and gin, which, whew). Instead, they were upset because Mulvaney is transgender.
Trans issues are currently front and center in America’s culture war. Anti-trans sentiment is sweeping many corners of the right, targeting children, drag shows, driver’s licenses, and health care, among other areas. It’s showing up in conservative media and conservative legislation and even working itself into the mainstream.
Since then, Bud Light has found itself in the eye of the anti-trans storm. Kid Rock shot cases of the beer, and Travis Tritt said he’s banning the brand from his tour. Many on the right have called for a boycott of the bestselling beer in the country. If this all sounds ludicrous, it’s because it kind of is. It’s also indicative of where we are in the United States today.
How big a deal is this for Bud Light? The answer will ultimately probably be not very, though the controversy has dragged out, and Bud Light’s sales have taken at least a temporary hit.
Don, a liquor store owner in Arkansas who requested to be referred to by a pseudonym so he “doesn’t get caught up in the wokeness,” told me he had seen a 20 to 25 percent dip in Bud Light sales in the days after the controversy hit, with his admittedly small sample size of shoppers seemingly opting for Miller Lite and Coors Light instead. However, he didn’t expect the backlash to stick. “A lot of people are talking about it, fired up about it, they’re never drinking Bud Light again, yada yada yada, but they’ll be drinking them in a month, as soon as the news cycle quits,” he said. That’s not exactly how it’s played out.
Typically, in terms of hurting sales, boycotts tend not to be super effective as most people don’t respond, let alone stick to them. Remember the Great Keurig Boycott of 2017? Or Frito-Lay in 2021? Or, more recently, when people were mad because M&Ms were girls? If Bud Light did a campaign like this, it probably thought it would help its sales with some segment of consumers, though its reaction to the controversy has been less than ideal and made people across the political spectrum — including Mulvaney — angry, perhaps undercutting that intent.
Bigger picture, Bud Light’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch InBev, has tons of brands under its umbrella and is worth over $100 billion. Its stock price has moved downward somewhat since the controversy took hold, but it’s still trading at around where it was at the start of the year, and well above last fall. There have also been worrying developments.
On April 13, Vox was copied on multiple emails apparently also sent to Anheuser-Busch saying that bombs had been placed at various company locations.
“The safety of our employees is always our top priority. We are working with local law enforcement to ensure the security of our people and our facilities,” an Anheuser-Busch spokesperson said in a statement to Vox.
“They’re just far more diversified and globalized than this market and this one brand, and bringing a substantial, sustained boycott against them to pressure them into walking back their support for trans people or however you interpret this campaign, it would require just an enormous amount of coordination and discipline that, frankly, the right wing in this country just doesn’t really display for stuff like this,” said Dave Infante, a beer columnist for VinePair and the publisher of the drinks newsletter Fingers. “There will be some wobbles here and there, but in terms of the company’s overall orientation and what it’s driving at, if they walk this back, it’s because they lost nerve, not because they lost sales.”
The Bud-lash, explained
On April 1, Mulvaney, 26, posted the video in question with the Bud Light cans and the sponsorship. For a company with as big an ad budget as Budweiser, these types of partnerships with influencers are generally pretty small potatoes. That’s not to say Mulvaney’s reach isn’t big — she’s got 1.8 million followers on Instagram and 10.8 million on TikTok and has deals (some now controversial) with multiple brands. But her reach isn’t Super Bowl-ad big.
The post started to pick up steam in conservative circles relatively quickly. Right-wing commentator Ben Shapiro decried the collaboration on his show, saying, “Well, folks, our culture has now decided men are women and women are men and you must be forced to consume products that say so.” Shapiro appears not to be much of a Bud Light fan himself, so he probably doesn’t have much to boycott. “I understand Bud Light is piss water masquerading as beer,” he said, “so I guess that, you know, it’s sort of trans beer.”
’90s rocker Kid Rock posted a video of himself shooting a few cases of Bud Light, which he presumably paid for. “Fuck Bud Light, and fuck Anheuser-Busch,” he said, “have a terrific day.” Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) put up a photo of a Coors Light case in the back of her vehicle on Twitter, the accompanying caption reading, “I would have bought the king of beers, but it changed it’s [sic] gender to the queen of beers.”
The country singer Travis Tritt said he would drop Anheuser-Busch from his tour and seemed to blame Bud Light’s Mulvaney deal on Europe. (Anheuser-Busch sold to Belgian company InBev in 2008, and to be honest here there’s a whole thing to get into about concentration in the beer market, but that’s not a today problem.)
In full disclosure, I was on a tour sponsored by Budweiser in the 90’s. That was when Anheuser-Busch was American owned. A great American company that later sold out to the Europeans and became unrecognizable to the American consumer. Such a shame.— Travis Tritt (@Travistritt) April 6, 2023
So now the Bud-lash is a whole thing, as is the backlash to the Bud-lash. Radio personality Howard Stern said he’s “dumbfounded” at all the hullabaloo, wondering on air, with regard to Kid Rock and Tritt, “Why do you care so much?” Fellow country singer Zach Bryan — who politically seems pretty cool — criticized Tritt relatively lightly on Twitter: “I just think insulting transgender people is completely wrong because we live in a country where we can all just be who we want to be,” he wrote. Bryan also assured Tritt he would “drink enough [Jack Daniels] for both of us” because Tritt appears to have discovered the liquor company partnered with RuPaul’s Drag Race a while back.
Anheuser-Busch generally appears to be trying to ride the wave, though the backlash is fierce. There was a rumor that it had laid off its entire marketing team, but that rumor is made up. However, the company has put two marketing executives on leave. It also canceled an event in Missouri in early April, citing safety concerns for its employees.
There was also a rumor that the Mulvaney cans were for sale to the public. They are not, though Bud Light did make limited-edition she/her cans now popping up on right-wing social media available in Canada for Pride in 2022, which … is not a big deal. Anheuser-Busch CEO Michel Doukeris got at the issue of bad information going around during the company’s earnings call in May, pointing out that “misinformation and confusion” still exists around what even happened. “We will need to continue to clarify the fact that this was one can, one influencer, one post, and not a campaign, and repeat this message for some time,” he said.
“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 in an emailed statement to multiple media outlets, including Vox, as the backlash set in. “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.”
On April 14, Anheuser-Busch released a lengthy, quite tepid statement from its CEO, Brendan Whitworth, saying he is “responsible for ensuring every consumer feels proud of the beer we brew” and highlighting the number of people the company and its distributors employ. “We have thousands of partners, millions of fans and a proud history supporting our communities, military, first responders, sports fans and hard-working Americans everywhere,” he said. “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”
The company didn’t respond to a follow-up asking whether they would still be working with Mulvaney.
Infante said that statement seemed like a “fundamental misreading” of the stakes of the situation. “Not only does this statement look like the brewer is walking back its stated DEI commitments (which will anger progressive customers and staff), but it’s not going to cool any heads on the right,” he said. “I honestly think this was worse than saying nothing. They just prolonged the news cycle another few days, because now their Republican antagonists in the media, Congress, and every statehouse in the country have more to work with.”
Many on the right were not appeased by Anheuser-Busch’s statement and are continuing to call for a boycott. Also on April 14, Bud Light’s social media accounts posted for the first time since the Mulvaney controversy began, and those posts — a simple “TGIF?” — were met with furor. The same goes for a pro-America ad for Budweiser released the same day.
There’s not agreement among conservatives as to whether a boycott should go on. Donald Trump Jr. called for it to end in April. In May, former President Donald Trump weighed in on the issue for the first time, writing on Truth Social, “It’s time to beat the Radical Left at their own game. Money does talk—Anheuser-Busch now understands that,” in a promotion for a book about conservative companies to buy from. (He hasn’t been very vocal about the issue. As Insider notes, financial filings show he is an AB InBev shareholder.)
Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX) and Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) are calling for a probe into whether Bud Light’s one-post campaign with Mulvaney, who is 26, amounts to marketing to underage people because her audience “skews younger.”
Anheuser-Busch’s reaction to conservative anger hasn’t played particularly well with the left, either. Some progressives and LGBTQ advocates are now calling for a boycott of the company over what they view as a backtrack on the Mulvaney deal.
On June 29, Mulvaney posted an emotional video on Instagram addressing the controversy for the first time. “What transpired from that video was more bullying and transphobia than I could have ever imagined,” she said, noting that it was “just an Instagram video.” She said Bud Light had not reached out to her since the backlash hit and that brands not standing by trans people “gives customers permission to be as transphobic as they want.” She also addressed the politics of the matter, saying, “Babe, supporting trans people shouldn’t be political.”
If you like your Bud Light, you can keep it (and if you’re mad at it, you probably won’t be for long)
Whether this current boycott will have much of a lasting impact on Bud Light’s sales remains to be seen, but if history is any indicator, the answer is probably no. Boycotts tend to damage a company’s reputation more than they do its bottom line.
Big beer companies, such as AB InBev and Molson Coors and Constellation Brands, are constantly looking for new markets and new niches to shore up the growth of their existing beer portfolios, Infante explained. “These are tough brands to find growth for — Bud Light has been shedding barrels of volume for years. It’s past its prime; it will not be the largest beer in the country much longer,” he said. “This is standard-issue pinkwashing stuff. They’re looking for ways to quote-unquote align their values with customer segments that they think maybe they can still find some loyalty in.”
Companies trying to appeal to the queer community is nothing new. Just look at how corporatized Pride Month has become — it’s good business to at least appear LGBTQ-friendly. That isn’t lost on Bud Light.
In the wake of this controversy, a March podcast interview with Alissa Heinerscheid, Bud Light’s vice president of marketing, started to make the rounds in which she acknowledged some of the brand’s troubles. “I had a really clear job to do when I took over Bud Light, and it was, ‘This brand is in decline, it’s been in a decline for a really long time, and if we do not attract young drinkers to come and drink this brand there will be no future for Bud Light,’” she said, adding that she wanted to update the company’s “fratty” image. Heinerscheid is one of the two executives placed on leave.
In right-wing media, those comments are being spun to suggest Bud Light wants to get rid of its more typical white male demographic, but that’s not really what’s going on. Bud Light has been losing ground to other beers, such as craft beers and Modelo and Michelob Ultra, as well as to spirits, for quite some time now. It’s looking for new customers wherever it can find them. “The reality is much more simple — it’s that the white male customer who used to drink a lot of Bud Light doesn’t anymore, and Bud Light has no choice but to find people who do,” Infante said. “There’s just no growth for Bud Light in its traditional core audience the way it used to have and used to be able to rely on.”
Some of that traditional core audience, even though it’s not growing, feels betrayed by Bud Light’s LGBTQ outreach and alliance, however small, with a trans woman. They feel like it’s gone “woke,” like another part of the country’s culture is changing around them in a way that’s uncomfortable.
“You’re talking about a demographic that’s drinking that beer here locally that’s about as far from that as you can get. You’re talking about some blue-collar working men. Women don’t drink that beer a lot or just in general, and sure, they just kind of struck a nerve with their base, potentially,” Don, the liquor store owner, said. On a consumer level, Don is actually a little bit of Bud Light’s problem. He doesn’t drink it and prefers Michelob Ultra instead — though that’s also made by AB InBev. (Seriously, concentration in the beer industry is a thing.)
The controversy over Bud Light’s partnership has gone on longer than many people initially expected. Bud Light sales were down by 23 percent from a year ago in the week ending on April 29, and Budweiser sales were down by 11 percent. Sales of other AB InBev products, such as Michelob Ultra, have fallen, too. HSBC analyst Carlos Laboy downgraded AB InBev’s stock in May, saying the Mulvaney dustup has caused “deeper problems than ABI admits” and criticizing company management’s handling of the matter. “The way this Bud Light crisis came about a month ago, management’s response to it and the loss of unprecedented volume and brand relevance raises many questions,” he wrote.
It’s worth noting here that AB InBev is hardly some pro-trans hero. The company’s Friday statement signals it’s at the very least aware that it’s angered some of its customers, and beyond that, this Mulvaney partnership is ultimately about the company trying to generate profits. It also papers over some much less LGBTQ-friendly actions. Anheuser-Busch has made multiple donations to anti-LGBTQ and anti-trans politicians over time — Popular Info has a whole rundown of the company’s activities. In 2021, New York City’s famous Stonewall Inn said it wouldn’t sell Anheuser-Busch’s beers during Pride weekend in protest of its contributions to lawmakers who have supported anti-LGBTQ legislation.
While corporate decisions sometimes serve as flash points in America’s culture wars, it’s probably important to point out that, by and large, they don’t have values. Or rather, they have only one: money.
Update, June 30, 10:40 am ET: This story was originally published on April 12 and has been updated multiple times, most recently to include the ongoing effects on Anheuser-Busch’s business and Mulvaney’s June video.