After two straight years of spending the Super Bowl furiously writing about Anheuser-Busch declaring war against the craft beer industry, I can’t help but find myself at an impasse in 2017. After seemingly establishing some precedent, the company has veered hard to the left, eliminating any reference to craft beer in 2017’s Super Bowl marketing, while simultaneously kicking off an immigration argument that may or may not have even been intentional. Lost in the shuffle, while everyone discusses German immigrants against the backdrop of Donald Trump’s xenophobic executive orders, is this question: Has Anheuser ceased its anti-craft Super Bowl marketing strategies? And does this signal a new approach toward craft from the company?
First, let’s get the discussion of this year’s ad out of the way. You can view it below.
In the current political climate, it’s no surprise that an ad with any hint of “pro-immigration” tone kicked up an immediate furor. Whether we like it or not, this is the nation that elected President Donald Trump to office, and in the process emboldened every xenophobe or racist who previously thought “Well, maybe I shouldn’t say hateful things about entire groups of people in public.” It’s no surprise that the comments section for the ad on YouTube is entirely toxic, full of comments such as “Politicizing this Superbowl add is a kick in the balls for many die hard Bud drinkers,” with all the spelling and grammatical errors present exactly as you see them. Once again: Not a shock.
But honestly? In a time when Super Bowl commercials cost $5 million for 30 seconds, and even more for a 60-second ad like the above, these things are NOT being cranked out in a week. What’s being interpreted by so many pissed-off right wingers as an anti-Trump or pro-immigration ad was probably shot well before the election even happened, in those halcyon days before any of us thought the world might be ending. In short, this commercial was definitely conceived, and probably shot, in a time before the immigration issue had ascended to the #1 hot button topic of political discourse, as it has been since Trump’s executive order banning entrants from 7 (largely Muslim) countries. It’s far more likely that the marketing execs designing this ad simply looked at it and thought “feel-good story about working class guy creating Budweiser!” It doesn’t matter that the story it portrays of Adolphus Busch coming to America isn’t even close to factually accurate; they thought they were creating an ad to appeal to blue-collar America, which is of course Bud Heavy’s biggest demographic.
The results, however, have ironically been almost the complete opposite. Those “working class” Americans also happened to be Trump voters, and perceiving any slight of their corporate deity President, they leapt to his defense, perceiving the ad as an attack on his policies despite the fact that it’s literally impossible for it to have been created in the last few weeks as a direct response to them. At the same time, the ad has been praised by liberals for having a “pro-immigration” message, despite those people theoretically not being Bud’s primary market. Or in other words: The people who LIKE the ad probably NEVER drink Budweiser, and are far more likely to be a craft beer audience. It all adds up to an advertisement that presumably has zero chance of positively affecting sales, despite the fact that it’s been watched 16 million times on YouTube. It’s quite the anomaly, and it would be funny if it wasn’t so sad.
But what about craft beer?
More interesting to me than all this immigration talk, though, is the change in tone for this year’s ad, away from the anti-craft beer commercials designed for the Budweiser (Bud Heavy) brand in 2015 and 2016. The essay I wrote to dissect the 2015 ad remains probably the most viral piece of content I’ve ever done for Paste, perfectly catching the craft beer zeitgeist of righteous anger after Budweiser mocked mustachioed hipsters for “sipping” their beer and enjoying “pumpkin peach ale,” while simultaneously buying out breweries producing exactly that product. In 2016 they doubled down on that aesthetic with an ad literally titled “Not Backing Down,” showing their old man demographic disdainfully flicking a slice of lemon out of a shaker pint. If the company looked at the angry response to 2015 and saw no reason to not continue with the same message in 2016, one wonders why they chose to go in a different direction now.
Prior to 2015, silence was always the unofficial AB strategy toward the suggestion that any part of their market share might be usurped by craft. It’s the classic “don’t punch down” reasoning—you can’t disparage your competition without acknowledging your competition as legitimate, and for many years it was simply easier to act as if craft beer wasn’t significant enough to acknowledge. Then 2015 came along, and they came out guns a-blazin’ to portray the craft segment as a bunch of effete, pretentious douchebags, in the hopes of making their own, ever-dwindling customer base feel more comfortable with continuing to drink Budweiser. That’s something not to be overlooked about the 2015 and 2016 ads—they’re not meant to court “new drinkers.” They’re meant to reassure the Budweiser drinker that “it’s still okay to drink Budweiser,” even though the world is telling them that Bud is painfully uncool. Having given up on the idea of actually increasing sales of Bud Heavy in a mature marketplace, they instead try to staunch the bleeding if they can, even as the company’s market share decreased again in 2016.
Now, though, the company has pulled back on those anti-craft ads, which suggests they no longer see any value in trying to shape public opinion about craft beer in a negative way. Rather, this may signal that Anheuser is acknowledging that one of their only viable areas of growth is in products the general populace perceives to be craft beer.
Enter the formerly craft breweries that Anheuser has been gobbling up in recent years. Ever since the first big domino fell in the form of Goose Island’s 2011 buyout, AB has been on a tear, snapping up mid-sized regional breweries in every part of the country. This may have been the year to put them over the hump of beginning to think of themselves as a faux-craft company, considering that they now own the likes of Four Peaks, Karbach, Breckenridge Brewery, Goose Island, 10 Barrel, Elysian, Blue Point, Devil’s Backbone, Golden Road and Virtue Cider. Keep in mind that those are only the breweries bought out by Anheuser, as MillerCoors has been hard at work doing the same. It only makes sense that they want to hitch their star to one of the only segments of beer that is currently growing, even if craft growth has also slowed somewhat in 2016, according to the Brewers Association. Still, some of that lost growth can be accounted for by the removal of breweries from the official “craft” list by the Brewers Association after their buyouts were made official.
At a time when Anheuser is strategizing still more craft brewery buyouts, and also is dipping its toes into ventures such as buying homebrewing suppliers such as Northern Brewer and partnering with Pitchfork to launch a highly suspect craft beer blog, it’s no longer accurate to say that AB sees craft as its “enemy.” Rather, it sees craft as its opportunity to profit, and it sees independent craft as its enemy. Anheuser doesn’t want to destroy craft beer, it wants to be craft beer.
So while everyone you know is arguing about whether a Super Bowl commercial was meant to communicate a politicized message about immigration, keep in mind that political discourse is hardly the issue that Anheuser will be mulling over in its upcoming acquisitions meetings. If you’re passionate about craft beer, be aware that AB’s interest in usurping the market only appears to be strengthening. We may laugh when they try to attack the image of craft beer, but sometimes “no attack” might signal an even more concerning future.
Jim Vorel is a Paste staff writer and resident beer guru. You can follow him on Twitter.