What was Bud Light thinking? Consumers keep ‘no’ in their vocabulary

Bud Light Hotel Presents UFC Exhibition
MIAMI BEACH, FL - FEBRUARY 02: Atmosphere at the Bud Light Hotel for the UFC Exhibition presented by Bud Light Hotel at Doubletree Surfcomber Hotel - South Beach on February 2, 2010 in Miami Beach, Florida. (Photo by Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images for Anheuser-Busch)
Photograph by Alexander Tamargo — Getty Images for Anheuser-Busch

Anheuser-Busch started its “Up For Whatever” marketing campaign two years ago. It consists of a different happy-go-lucky slogan on each bottle’s label, one of which read, “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.”

Whatever response the company expected, they didn’t get it. Mother Jones highlighted a Twitter comment calling Bud Light “the official beer of rape culture,” and Consumerist linked to a Reddit comment that read “Remember ‘No’ always means ‘No’ especially if the question is: do you want a Bud Light?”

Bud Light has been the subject of this kind of controversy before. It rang in St. Patrick’s Day with a Twitter message that read “On #StPatricksDay you can pinch people who don’t wear green. You can also pinch people who aren’t #UpForWhatever.” The Tweet was deleted in the face of social media complaints.

Kat Gordon is founder of The 3% Conference, whose mission is to increase female creative leadership in advertising agencies. She described Bud Light’s campaign as out of step with consumer sentiment and oblivious to current events.

“The thing that’s so ill-timed is there’s a real awareness of sexual assault on college campuses” she said. “It’s something that everybody is aware of and having newfound sensitivity about, so it seems odd, especially now.”

Some might marvel that a campaign this tone-deaf could make its way through 155,000 employees with not one saying, “Maybe this is a bad idea.” According to its website, Anheuser-Busch’s owner, AB Inbev, has one woman in top management — “Chief Legal & Corporate Affairs Officer and Secretary to the Board of Directors.” According to the company’s 2014 annual report, it has one woman on its board of directors.

Gordon said that at many large companies, “creative geniuses” will come up with an obviously horrible idea, but fearful subordinates are too afraid to say so, creating an “Emperor’s New Clothes” effect.

“I suspect that several people — men and women — sensed something was wrong, but didn’t feel empowered to speak up,” she said. “It’s like calling off a wedding the week before. The flowers are already ready.”

Representatives from Anheuser-Busch did not return calls or emails. However, Bud Light Vice President Alexander Lambrecht released a statement on the Anheuser-Busch website addressing the controversy.

“The Bud Light Up for Whatever campaign, now in its second year, has inspired millions of consumers to engage with our brand in a positive and light-hearted way,” the statement said. “In this spirit, we created more than 140 different scroll messages intended to encourage brand engagement. It’s clear that this particular message missed the mark, and we regret it. We would never condone disrespectful or irresponsible behavior. As a result, we have immediately ceased production of this message on all bottles.”

But Gordon said that by simply releasing a statement, the company is doing itself a disservice. She said the best way for companies to deal with these situations is to use social media to their advantage.

“They can see these things as an opportunity, not a crisis,” she said. “If Bud Light took advantage of social media and responded in real time with a sincere apology, it could really help.”

Daniel Bukszpan is a New York-based freelance writer.

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