By now much of the outrage over the message Bud Light splayed across its label—“The perfect beer for removing the word ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night”—has subsided. The reaction, captured in tweets such as “Who in the world approved the rapey @budlight tagline?” and “@Budlight the official beer of rape culture,” has met its own equally indignant backlash. Bud Light has stopped printing the offensive labels, and brand Vice President Alex Lambrecht has apologized flatly that the message “missed the mark.”
But the episode begs a larger question: What does it take to change a culture? I’m talking about the culture epitomized by Bud Light’s two-year-old “Up for Whatever” campaign, the one that inspired the tone-deaf tagline.
The phrase “up for whatever” suggests a careless indifference to future events and their repercussions. It also implies an abandonment of basic standards regarding one’s own and others’ safety and wellbeing. It’s a phrase that is both startlingly passive and at the same time slyly aggressive.
“Up for Whatever” fuels and is fueled by the stereotype of a frat house culture of collective obliviousness, a culture that, not surprisingly, appears to exist at Bud Light itself. At least, this is what Francine Katz, formerly “Queen of Beer” at Anheuser-Busch, alleged in a 2009 discrimination lawsuit. Katz, one of two token women among 18 men in the C suite, described a “locker room and frat party,” environment where women weren’t considered peers.
This helps us grasp how the message “removing the word ‘no’” gained approval at at least five different corporate levels, during a period when the issue of rape on campuses is front and center in the national conversation, when scores of colleges are under attack for their handling of rape allegations, and when one young woman is vividly expressing the suffering of sexual assault by carrying her mattress on her back.
Bud Light has, so far, refused to engage on this issue, but the link between sexual assault and alcohol is too clear to be ignored: 80 percent of sexual assaults involve alcohol consumption on the part of the perpetrator or victim, and approximately 100,000 students yearly suffer from alcohol-related date-rape, according to the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism.
As a marketer, I have to consider another somewhat cynical possibility: that Bud Light acted with intention—that its team knew the message was antagonistic and ran with it to generate buzz and strengthen its “that guy” brand position.
Look at the track record. Less than two months ago, the social media universe blasted Bud Light for a sexually aggressive St. Pat’s tweet. Its image featured five young women in green, and its text read: “On #StPatricksDay, you can pinch people who don’t wear green. You can also pinch people who aren’t #UpForWhatever.”
In February, brand spokesman Warren Sapp of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers wound up arrested for solicitation and assault of a prostitute. OK, Bud Light removed the ad that featured him. But why hire him in the first place? In 2010 and 2014, the former defensive tackle faced domestic battery charges, including choking.
Also in February, the brand released its flavored beer line: MIXXTAILS, with “XX” underscoring its brand promise. And last September, Bud Light turned Crested Butte, Colorado, into a drunken mega-party, as part of a “Whatever, USA” pitch—reinforcing to impressionable young people that a good time equals a drunk time.
Now Bud Light has announced “Whatever, USA, 2015” (Watch out, Catalina Island, CA), and it’s advertising on Tinder, an app for sexual risk-taking. Want a chance to win a trip to the bash? “Swipe right,” which indicates you’re game for an encounter.
“Up for Whatever” plays into a fantasy world on steroids that drinking can make your night or weekend and improve your life. It’s seductive on an emotional level, and it propels young men and women alike into irresponsible behavior. As we’ve noted previously, close to 2,000 college students between the ages of 18 and 24 die each year from alcohol-related injuries, and alcohol is a factor in two out of three student suicides. Binge drinking, in particular—perhaps tacitly encouraged by Bud Light’s quantity-over-quality product–leads to dangerous beer-fueled hazing rituals, pranks gone wrong, sexual assaults, drunk-driving accidents, and other risky activities. What’s more, for many, it opens the floodgate to years of problem drinking—something we already see far too much of at Phoenix House.
Unfortunately, there will be no “Whatever, USA” to escape to when the night turns bad. Young people and their families will be on their own to face the real-life, often devastating consequences of buying into the brand’s artfully constructed come-on. Bud Light, the next time a young man stands on trial facing years of prison for sexual assault and a lifetime of being labeled a predator, and a young women is left traumatized, will you be there winking at the judge and snickering that crossing the line was all in the spirit of “whatever”?
If not, Bud Light, part of the world’s 23rd most valuable brand, according to Forbes, maybe it’s time to lead instead of pander. Begin on the inside: I’m guessing at least some of the guys who approved that “removing the word ‘no’” line, knew better. Getting over the lockstep “bro” mentality would be a good place to start. Next get real: engage in that national conversation that virtually every college in the country is having. Maybe it will spark a little attitude adjustment.
Finally take a closer look at your market. Sure, we understand that your $350 million pull-out-all-stops annual campaign is designed to win over millennials. We know they’re all about unexpected surprises, shared experiences, energy, and intrigue.
But in case you missed it, they also want—and expect—their companies to do well by doing good. As Crain’s Chicago Business pithily puts it, “Corporate social responsibility is millennials’ new religion.” Your vice president, Alex Lambrecht, took a figurative pie in the face with the “removing “no” message. On behalf of “Whatever” he also took one literally. He has shown he’s game; now to the point, is he willing to change the game?
Vice President, Marketing and Communications