The Bud Light trans influencer controversy has slowly cooled off and the bubbling inferno reduced to a simmering pool of lukewarm, beer-flavoured backwash. The collaboration at the heart of the drama amounted to little more than a Bud Light Influencer being sent a swag-bag and ended up with no less than $6 billion being wiped off the market cap of Bud Light’s parent company Anheuser-Busch. The incumbent market leader in US beer sales had sought to switch things up, and that they certainly did.
For progressives, the controversy was a further example of conservatives not simply allowing a transgender person to be. The necessity of the slogan “trans people exist” writ large. The shining example of one trans person’s experience being enough to spark apoplectic rage on the right. To conservatives, it represented a galvanising cause that highlighted woke taste-makers co-opting and politicising everything down to the very beer they drink when trying to unwind. Ultimately it was a litmus test for how far marketers can ignore the central tenants of their profession by indulging elite personal beliefs over their professional responsibilities. It was anti-marketing, it was activist advertising.
We can talk about Dylan Mulvaney. We can talk about how this isn’t a trans person existing but rather a specific trans person existing in a specific context, namely, a trans woman – with a history of problematic girlish roleplay – being recruited to sell a beer to customers who positively vibrate in the key of old school masculinity. But the rights and wrongs of Dylan Mulvaney as a person – or at least a public persona – is a different conversation. The question keeping shareholders awake at night is why a global brand would willingly recruit an influencer so obviously at odds with its core demographic. What strange instincts inspired Bud Light’s senior leadership to attempt the crossover that nobody wanted?
It goes without saying that a brand of Bud Light’s size and prestige approaches its campaigns with an army of marketeers, consultants, data scientists and creatives. The surface level analysis is of demographics; things like the age, sex, profession and location of the people who buy their beer. Then the marketing boffins would have studied why people drink their beer, what values Bud Light represented that elevated their beer above all the others in the crowded 7-Eleven fridges of their core demographic. With these insights tucked under their arm, Bud Light strategists would then look at affinity brands: the products and services that resonate with their audience. They would study the media consumed and buying habits of its customers. What is their news channel of choice? What is on their Spotify playlists? What truck do they drive and how do they finance it? They would do focus groups and surveys as well as study the finest data and consumer analytics that money can buy.
Not to labour the point, but Bud Light would have had a mountain of information when they launched their 2023 campaigns. And you can bet that nowhere, absolutely nowhere in that original research was the name Dylan Mulvaney. That name came from somewhere else. That name came from the value system of one particular VP of Bud Light but also tacitly from the ideologies of senior executives of the Anheuser-Busch corporation.
“What does evolve and elevate mean? It means inclusivity”, says Alissa Gordon Heinerscheid, Bud Light’s first female VP of Marketing on a recent podcast. “It means shifting the tone. It means having a campaign that’s truly inclusive. And representation. Is it sort of the heart of evolution? You’ve got to see people who reflect you in the work.”
So evolution was the stated goal. We have a market leader look its gift horse so squarely in the mouth that it demands its marketing reflect the creators beliefs rather than those of the audience. When she speaks of representation and inclusion she is laying the groundwork for politics trumping commerce. The trouble with representation and inclusion is that it is not possible to represent and include everyone within the very limited canvas of a banner or television ad or even an entire brand. That’s why marketers are paid to decide on specific audiences and use advertising to reflect them and appeal to them. It’s a job Bud Light was historically good at and used to galvanise its place as the top-selling beer in the US. What Heinerscheid really meant is betrayed by the term ‘elevate’. She didn’t want broader reach or increased market share, the traditional metrics by which corporate leaders are judged. She wanted to speak to an altogether better and more elevated customer base. Under her stewardship, Bud Light wanted less of one type of representation, and more of another. She went on to say:
“And we had this hangover…Bud Light had been kind of a brand of fratty, kind of out-of-touch humour, and it was really important that we had another approach.”
But why? Bud Light was winning. Without any mincing of words and on the public record, Heinserscheid lays the decision-making bare. She – and the decision-makers above her – straight up did not like Bud Light’s traditional audience. It was too white. Too heterosexual. Too prone to wearing baseball caps, driving trucks and voting GOP. It might not be overstating the case that, given how comfortable she was saying what she said publicly, in private her feelings were stronger.
Senior executives at Bud Light simply hated their audience.
Heinersheid, a Wharton Business School grad, would represent a typical example of the Ivy League output that dominates the boardrooms of corporate America. Even in sectors where customers lean right, senior leadership is often hopelessly entrenched in progressive politics and culture. Enter Dylan Mulvaney. In the course of a year, the transgender influencer was snapped up by Nike, Crest, KitchenAid and a half dozen other brands. Just like with Bud Light, the values she represented were the values senior leadership wanted to be a part of. If the consumers didn’t want it, that was their problem. Bud Light drinkers didn’t slay half enough, they didn’t snap back and they were collectively in urgent need of yassification, one way or another.
What the fallout from the Dylan Mulvaney campaign represents is marketers distilled condescension being so perfectly embodied and put on show. Until lately, the issue existed more as a feeling than a conviction for many right wing consumers, but with more and more companies taking their lead from hyper-progressive Silicon Valley juggernauts, there is a dawning realisation that many marketers simply hate them. And in an inversion of how businesses normally work, where marketers crafted their messaging to appeal to their audience, they now attempt to craft their audience to be receptive to their messaging. Not content to sell their product at massive profits and personal gain, corporate executives recruited from elite business schools will not stop until you consume their product with the right attitude and the correct beliefs.
In all likelihood, Bud Light will bounce back, recoup the lost market share and chalk the Dylan Mulvaney controversy down as a cautionary tale. The world turns, some other culture war issue will flare up and Anheuser-Busch executives will welcome the warm embrace of anonymity again. Maybe the trans influencer’s name will echo in the classrooms of the business schools feeding corporate America in years to come but the actual lessons taken from the debacle are yet to be established. It’s not difficult to imagine that the hubris of the executive class would lead them to focus on the PR blunders rather than the root causes of the issue. The post mortem would centre on crisis comms and speculate that but for a new female VP, but for that VP dropping a mistimed ‘basket of deplorables’ soundbite, but for the CEO’s insipid non-apology, but for Mulvany’s increased visibility in the months leading up to the partnership, but for individual missteps, everything would have been alright.
Or will the Bud Light controversy inspire a different type of corporate case study? One where it’s recognised that the strategy was wrong from first principles and foisting the aesthetics, icons and values of the creators onto the audience is a problem. A cursory glance at the marketing landscape would tell us that the world is rife with Activist Advertising. It is embedded in a corporate culture decades in the making and no single PR firestorm is likely to lead to root and branch reform. But in the wake of significant tech and media layoffs, some of the heavy hitters of Activist Advertising have themselves received a black eye for the first time. With growing AI disruption across industries and an uncertain economic landscape, the Mulvaney controversy might in some small way cause executives to be slower to define their role as elevating their audience and return to the idea of running a profitable business.