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Have all the beers gone woke? An investigation.

Conservatives are mad about a Miller Lite video from March now. I don’t know.

Cases of Bud Light and Miller Lite.
Bud Light, Miller Lite, and the case of the woke beers.
Scott Olson/Getty Images
Emily Stewart covers business and economics for Vox and writes the newsletter The Big Squeeze, examining the ways ordinary people are being squeezed under capitalism. Before joining Vox, she worked for TheStreet.

Is there no safe beer for conservatives in America to drink right now?!

First, Bud Light sent a few beers to a transgender influencer in early April. Then, Miller Lite ran an ad celebrating female brewers and offering up a lighthearted mea culpa over all the beer ads over the years featuring women in bikinis. Actually, the Miller Lite thing happened before the Bud Light thing, back in March for Women’s History Month, but most people didn’t see the Miller Lite thing before now. So now some on the right are mad about both of these major beer brands over what they see as selling out and taking progressive positions in supporting trans people and women.

It’s not like beers are totally progressive now though, either. The customers these campaigns were aimed at might be upset to notice that Bud Light parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev hasn’t exactly stuck to its guns on Dylan Mulvaney, the trans influencer in question, and neither company’s political donations are super aligned with left-leaning causes.

It’s almost like beer companies do not have a consistent, coherent set of morals and values consumers should look to for cues on what to buy. The same goes for all companies, for that matter. Corporations are not your friends, let alone your political allies.

Think of it this way, whatever your political inclinations: The beers are the drinking buddies you suspect really don’t have your best interests at heart when they suggest you order just one more at the bar before you head home. They’ve been putting all of the rounds on your tab, and are drinking with the other guy at the bar who really irks you.

What the beers did

If you had asked me what one of the major business stories of the first half of the year would be in 2023, I would not have said beer brands doing supposedly woke stuff. But here we are, and so here I am, too.

In April, Bud Light sent trans influencer and activist Mulvaney some cans of beer and Mulvaney posted about it on social media, presumably as part of a pretty run-of-the-mill paid sponsorship deal. It sparked outrage on the right as part of the ongoing backlash toward trans rights and visibility, with some conservative beer-drinkers feeling like it represented a betrayal and calling for a boycott. Kid Rock shot some beers, Travis Tritt said he was axing the brand from his tour. Indeed, Bud Light sales have declined in the wake of the backlash, though as with any boycott, it’s hard to know how long the impact will last. (Vox has a full explainer on the Bud Light situation here.)

In May, apparently in search of another target, conservatives decided that Miller Lite was bad, too, and overly woke. People dug up an ad from March and are now mad about that. In said ad, actress and comedian Ilana Glazer talks about an initiative at the company — titled “Bad $#!T to Good $#!T” — to create fertilizer from old, sexist beer advertising (read: featuring scantily clad women). The fertilizer was supposed to be used to grow hops for female brewers.

It’s not entirely clear why the right has seized on this just now, as Miller Brewing Company, which is owned by Molson Coors, put out the ad and a press release announcing the fertilizer campaign more than two months ago. But the conservative bear has been poked. Right-leaning commentators and outlets have lamented that this is another piece of evidence that the beer companies are “broken,” complaining that another brand has jumped into a “woke beer game” and is headed for the “boycott treatment too.”

A quick scan of Twitter would indicate there’s some … confusion … over what exactly the Miller Lite controversy is or who is at fault. Many people seem mistaken on the timeline and don’t realize its ad came a month before the Bud Light ad and instead believe Miller is following in Bud’s footsteps. One commentator thought Miller was owned by AB InBev, but it is not.

This is emblematic of the broader controversy — a lot of people have lost the plot on what exactly happened with Bud Light, to the extent they ever knew it. Some consumers incorrectly believe the company undertook a broad-based marketing campaign with Mulvaney, that beer cans featuring her image are for sale to the public, or that AB InBev is marketing cans with pronouns on them in the US. None of those things are true. Anheuser-Busch CEO Michel Doukeris got at the issue in the company’s most recent earnings call, 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.

Some of the pushback to Bud Light’s Mulvaney partnership was supposedly that it was offensive to women. In her post, Mulvaney said she didn’t know what March Madness was, which some people claimed played into outdated stereotypes. In response to Vox’s original Bud Light explainer, one reader lamented, “We have come a long way in this country as women. Women before us have fought hard to get the respect we deserve. Do you want to go back to a time where women needed to act dumb and look pretty?” On a larger scale, some anti-trans sentiment proclaims to be about protecting women. It certainly seems that the reaction to the Miller Lite ad, which is coming from many of the same people, would undercut this whole pro-women thing.

The Bud-lash has some legs, but will it last forever? Ehh.

The controversy over Bud Light’s partnership has had some legs to it. 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 dust-up 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. He questioned whether the company is hiring the “best people to grow the brands and gauge risk” internally. “If Budweiser and Bud Light are iconic American ideas that have long brought consumers together, why did these marketers fail to invite new consumers without alienating the core base of the firm’s largest brand?”

There’s no denying AB InBev’s handling of the situation has been messy. Initially, the company went dark on the matter, putting out a single statement and keeping quiet on social media. Then, it put out a longer statement from the CEO that in actuality says very little and managed to anger some progressives and LGBTQ groups, too. It also put some marketing executives on leave. Overall, it’s sort of just continued to muddle through, and nobody’s happy in any corner.

It’s not clear whether the storm that’s subsumed Bud Light is headed for Miller Lite. Given the current state of culture wars in America, trans rights do seem to be more of a hot-button issue than, you know, the existence of women, but who knows.

For now, Miller Lite appears to be taking the fuss in stride. “This video was about two things: worm poop and saying women shouldn’t be forced to mud wrestle in order to sell beer,” a spokesperson for Molson Coors said in an emailed statement to Vox. “Neither of these things should be remotely controversial and we hope beer drinkers can appreciate the humor (and ridiculousness) of this video from back in March.”

The website the ad was touting appears to have been taken down, and the video is a smidge hard to find online. Miller Lite’s social media is also filled with people yelling at it about the ad.

For those currently looking to boycott Bud Light and Miller Lite, note that their parent companies really have the US beer market cornered, accounting for about two-thirds of sales. So if you want to buy from elsewhere, you might have a hard time doing it. You probably do not even know all the brands they sell, and if you’re really looking, you can likely find something to be mad about that, say, some Constellation Brands brew, including Modelo and Corona, did at some point. There’s that conservative dad guy selling “Ultra Right” beer, but it’s $19.99 for a six-pack, and it won’t ship for another 30 days. Also, watch out, because Pride Month is just around the corner, and the corporations love it.

The beers don’t really care about politics, they just want people to drink

The weekend after the Bud Light dust-up really hit, I had a couple of friends order one at the bar, laughingly declaring it meant they were supporting trans rights. (I am not a beer drinker, or I probably would have joined in.) It was all in jest, but it points to a bigger question of the way we often think about our choices as consumers: as political acts toward entities that are, by and large, apolitical.

Corporations are under more and more pressure to take a stand on the political issues of the day, not only from customers but also from workers. And they increasingly do. But they usually do so because ultimately they believe it’s good for their bottom lines. Making money for shareholders is the whole game.

Bud Light didn’t send beer to Mulvaney because it wants to become a champion of trans rights, it did so because the brand is struggling and it thought LGBTQ consumers were a potential avenue for expansion. Miller Lite’s leaders aren’t lying in bed at night sick over all of those sexist ads over the years. They know women have money to spend, and they would like them to spend it on their beers.

It’s easy to make light of this stuff — people calling for boycotts of random alcoholic beverages because of small online campaigns they found is quite silly. There are, obviously, quite serious elements to this. On a cultural level, the backlash against trans rights in the US is scary for many trans people in the country just trying to live their lives. For all the strides women have supposedly made, they still face setbacks and biases in so many ways and lack basic rights and protections. Abortion rights across the country were rolled back last year.

Companies would probably much rather escape the culture wars, but they can’t. It’s important to remember they are imperfect culture warriors, and that the only war they’re really fighting is for dollars.