SUPER BOWL ADS: “King of Beers” Accidentally Shoots Sibling

Budweiser super bowl ads

In case you missed it, the most controversial ad of the 2015 Super Bowl wasn’t the sleazy, cheesy Carl’s Jr. “Au Naturel” offering, or T-Mobile’s Kim Kardashian pseudo-spoof, or even that depressing dead kid spot from Nationwide. While all drew their fair share of criticism, the one that generated the most unexpected firestorm comes from a brand whose advertising is typically as non-controversial as anyone this side of Disney: Budweiser.

While Budweiser stayed true to its feel-good advertising roots with the enormously popular “Lost Dog” ad in the first half, it got aggressive in the third quarter. As Russell Wilson and the Seahawks seized control of the gridiron narrative, AB InBev’s flagship brand sought to do the same in the beer world with a one-minute, visual-only ad proudly positioning Bud as a “macro” beer that was “brewed the hard way.” While the positioning makes total sense—and has been done before by other “macro” brands like Coke and McDonald’s—they didn’t stop there.  The ad quickly became an almost comically over-the-top attack on craft beers and their drinkers.

Har har har, right? A little jab at those pretentious craft beer fops and a nod to the regular guys who drink good old Bud. Yeah, except for one little problem… less than a week earlier AB InBev bought a Seattle-based microbrewery named Elysian. And while there was a good bit of angst about that transaction in the craft beer community and among the owners and employees of Elysian, the bad karma rose exponentially when it became known that Elysian actually made a peach pumpkin ale. Hypocrisy, anyone?

Not surprisingly, several small brewers, including Louisiana’s Abita, fired back with a YouTube spoof of the Bud spot, calling Bud a “dog and pony show” and touting the fact that Abita makes beers that are intended to be “fussed over”—including a peach pumpkin lager.

The fight went up a weight division yesterday afternoon when MillerCoors—another macro—jumped into the fray, tweeting an image that said, “We believe each and every style of beer is worth fussing over” and  “Quality isn’t something that belongs to a single style of beer or a single brewer.”

(Interestingly, MillerCoors showed its full range of products in the ad visual, including two of the faux-craft beer brands it owns, Blue Moon and Leinenkugel’s.)

So what did AB InBev have to say about its flagship brand insulting its new sibling, Elysian? In an interview prior to the Super Bowl commercial ran, Budweiser VP Brian Perkins seemed unaware of any conflict. He said the ad was not meant to criticize craft beer, noting that “the only other beer that we reference in the spot is a fabricated, ludicrous flavor combination of pumpkin peach ale.” He pointed out that much of the spot talks in a “positive, affirming way about Budweiser quality.” However, since the potential slight to Elysian has been pointed out (post-Super Bowl) the AB InBev team has passed on all interview opportunities.

The Elysian guys have not been so coy. Elysian co-founder Dick Cantwell told the Chicago Tribune in an email interview that “I find it kind of incredible that ABI would be so tone-deaf as to pretty directly (even if unwittingly) call out one of the breweries they have recently acquired, even as that brewery is dealing with the anger of the beer community in reaction to the sale.”

“It doesn’t make our job any easier, and it certainly doesn’t make me feel any better about a deal I didn’t even want to happen,” he added. “It’s made a difficult situation even more painful.”

So how did this happen in a major international corporation? It’s anyone’s guess. My thought is that someone in the legal or PR department didn’t communicate with marketing. Or maybe they did and it was a conscious decision—hey, what Bud drinker knows or cares about an obscure Seattle craft brewery, anyway? Either way, it is a sloppy and ironic black eye on a brewer who usually is known for careful and cautious advertising.

Almost as ironic as calling a pass from the one yard line when you have the toughest running back in football ready to get the rock.