As a longtime PR veteran, I’ve always been skeptical of brands that hire social media stars for ads, social posts, or campaigns.
Without being too specific, about six years ago I helped coordinate an advertising initiative on a global issue, where a nonprofit advertising association hired an Instagram star as a spokesperson.
For me, the alarm bells went off.
We didn’t know anything about this person, only that she was a teenage social influencer who had several million followers and was talking about the issue we were promoting. I agreed after expressing my concern, well, because it was not my decision to hire him.
The day before the launch of the initiative, an “I told you so” controversy erupted. It turns out that the teenager in question used to repost inflammatory remarks from her mother who was a far-right xenophobe and anti-Semite. We had to scramble hard and fast to find a replacement on short notice.
Since that incident six years ago, times have changed — somewhat. Desperate to reach the nearly untouchable demographic that includes Gen Z or Zoomers, brands are grabbing whoever they can from this generation’s stars from TikTok, YouTube and Instagram in hopes of striking gold. The more provocative they are, the more media attention these influencers bring to the brand – and that has consequences.
Sometimes I can still say, “I told you so.” Morphe cosmetics company snapped up young social influencers Jeffree Star and James Charles, then the bottom fell. Star was accused of being racist, and sexual misconduct complaints were filed against Star and Charles, which negatively impacted 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 first anniversary of her transition. As part of the celebration, the beer giant sent out Mulvaney Bud Light cans with her image on them, and she released a digital advertisement promoting the beer.
In this situation, the theory of a social influencer harming a brand’s reputation has been turned upside down. It was Mulvaney who proved to be too good for Budweiser after the beer giant refused to defend Mulvaney from a barrage of vitriol directed at her.
All hell broke loose for Budweiser and for innocent Mulvaney. The anti-trans invective continues to be directed at Mulvaney. Digital videos of transphobes dumping Bud Light began to appear on social media, along with threatening messages aimed at the trans community. These stubborn beer drinkers have called for a boycott of Bud Light.
Kid Rock, who is not a friend in our community, posted a video of him shooting a rifle at crates of Bud Light – there’s so much wrong with that, I don’t don’t even know where to start. Right-wing Republican Congressman from Texas Dan Crenshaw made a video saying he was going to throw away all of his Bud Light cans. 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 read this and say, “Who is that?” Exactly!
Bud Light’s decision to partner with Mulvaney was a bold good 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 heavy old brand embracing love and acceptance. Bud Light’s CMO recently said, paraphrasing here, that the company needs to move away from outdated branding. It’s an image more associated with oldies like Kid Rock and Nugent, and, with Mulvaney, they’ve taken a giant step forward.
Bud Light was getting massive PR for its partnership with Mulvaney, and initially it likely met their expectations of engaging a younger demographic. Elders and fanatics, however, began to cry boycott while younger audiences praised the movement.
Speaking from experience, and validating what other experts say, boycotts rarely work. This is because they peak quickly and then fade away. The trick for a brand is not to get caught up in the whirlwind of debate around protests. It is better to remain silent.
That’s what Nike did by signing Colin Kaepernick. Nike sales skyrocketed. The racists said they were boycotting Nike because Kaepernick took a knee. Protesters called themselves ‘true patriots’ because rather than kneeling during the national anthem, they stood, barely, on their feet, gulping down Budweisers – America’s way of ‘proud of beer’ .
At first, Budweiser made a statement that seemed to tacitly support their involvement with Mulvaney: “Anheuser-Busch works with hundreds of influencers across our brands as one of many ways to authentically connect with audiences of diverse demographic groups. From time to time, we produce unique commemorative cans for fans and for brand influencers, such as Dylan Mulvaney. This commemorative can was a gift to celebrate a personal milestone and is not for sale to the general public.
They should have left it there.
If you recall, former Disney CEO Bob Chapek first opposed Florida’s “Don’t Say Gay” bill and then, again, after boycott threats, he came back and hesitated. It was a huge mistake that partly cost him his job.
Now comes Anheuser-Busch CEO Brendan Whitworth, who couldn’t be left alone enough. There’s nothing consumers hate more than a tasteless brand. In a press release titled “Our Responsibility to America” (the PR guy is SMH!), Whitworth said, “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. Our job is to bring people together over a beer.”
He then uttered this gag-worthy phrase: “Going forward, I will continue to work tirelessly to bring great beers to consumers in our country.”
Yes, Whitworth will magically ask Kid Rock and Mulvaney to do a commercial together. Budweiser is no longer known as the king of beers, but as the foam of conviviality. As you can imagine, his comments caused haters to dig deeper, and now all hope is lost for Budweiser because he didn’t speak out against the hate.
Essentially, Whitworth mimicked Donald Trump’s horrific comments after a rally of white supremacists in Charlottesville, Va., when he erroneously said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
Budweiser’s statement was indefensible and exacerbates the disgust for trans people that is bubbling in Republican-led state legislatures across the country.
Budweiser’s approach to legitimizing the bad side was validated when Donald Trump, Jr. came to the brand’s defense. Trump, Jr., middle-aged, angry, gay and transphobic, said the boycotts should end because “we have reviewed Anheuser-Busch’s history of political donations and lobbying. And guess what? They actually support the Republicans. Trump, Jr. also claimed the company backs right-wing GOP nut Senator JD Vance of Ohio and the ultimate waffle iron himself, House Speaker Kevin McCarthy.
In an attempt to be right here, Budweiser did the required publicity blitzes for Pride Month and even had a commercial featuring Joe Rogan and Amy Schumer attending a gay wedding. However, according Newsweek“Some data shows that the company has given anti-LGBTQ lawmakers even more. 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: “During the 2022 election cycle, more than 62% of overall PAC contributions went to Republicansagainst only 37% for Democratsaccording to data compiled by OpenSecrets.”
Then Budweiser poured themselves another flat beer for us, and a nice pint for the very conservative ones they support. Over the weekend he released a “pro-American” video. It looked like Ronald Reagan’s Morning Again US campaign ad from 1984. There was a person of color, his signature Clydesdale running from one small white town to another, and 22 years after the fact, she shamelessly showed downtown Manhattan, evoking 9/11. .
I don’t have to tell you that he 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 femininity? Of course you don’t, because the right took over the conversation, and rather than let it die down, Budweiser and Whitworth, and their white lily advertising, turned it into a bar crawl of misanthropes which have gone wrong.
Rather than standing up for a transgender woman, rather than standing up for a lofty campaign that sought to reflect acceptance, and rather than letting the campaign with Mulvaney speak for itself, Budweiser poured booze on the fire of an extremist, and it will continue to burn our community.
Perhaps the worst thing Budweiser did was leave Mulvaney all alone, writhing in the wind, abandoning any form of defense against her. It’s an utterly repugnant reflection of the brand.
Anheuser-Busch, weakly and reluctantly, did not rise up against hatred. And while boycotts don’t work, they do make a statement. It’s not Kid Rock and Ted Nugent who should be boycotting Budweiser – it should be us.
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