It’s not actually about selling beer

The most important thing to understand about the Dylan Mulvaney adverts for Nike Sports Bras, and Budweiser’s “Bud Lite” beer, is that neither advert is, truly, about selling the products which they officially advertise.

For example, Mulvaney’s TikTok video promoting Bud Lite does not, at any stage, say anything positive about the beer itself. There’s no “tasty”, or “refreshing”, or “all the fun of beer with half the calories”, or anything really to tell the viewer that Bud Lite is superior to Coors Lite, or Miller Lite, or any of its competitors at all. We get a special bud can to celebrate Mulvaney’s “365 day anniversary of being a woman”:

On Friday, I wrote the following:

If you are pursuing a career in official Ireland, it is objectively safer to nod through a book telling children how to perform blowjobs than it is to ask awkward questions and risk being thought a bit of a homophobe, or worse, a prude. It’s the culture of fear in action: The same culture of fear that makes people in multinational companies wear their rainbow badges for pride week, and the same culture of fear that has GAA clubs and schools frantically trying to source the latest version of the pride flag lest they offend somebody by flying the wrong one. Much of this stuff is not a show of genuine commitment to the cause, but the modern equivalent of paying protection money: We flew the flag, you can’t question our inclusivity.

I don’t think that latter point is entirely true, however, in relation to big companies like Bud Lite and Nike. Though there are some similarities.

For example in some ways, the fact that Mulvaney’s promotion of Bud Lite by claiming to have spent 365 days as a woman is grotesque is the point: The ad is entirely and solely intended to signal that Bud Lite is aligned with the left on social issues, which then in turn allows it a free hand on economic issues. It is not supposed to sell beers, it is supposed to provoke a culture war outrage in which the left rush to defend Bud Lite. The more outrageous, the more offensive, the more grotesque, the better. In “Game of Thrones”, there’s a character who murders two children to prove his loyalty to his own father. This is what I will do for you, is the message. This is how much I believe.

This is the market at work.

For most the twentieth century, the left was entirely opposed, in general, to large corporations. It was the movement of trade unions, and the working man, and ratcheting up taxes on big profits in order to pay for social programmes. When the left got into power, the wealthy were supposed to worry. That was their brand: For the poor, against the rich.

But then something unfortunate happened: With the end of the cold war, and, in the west, the emergence of Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, the right – whether you like it or not – basically won the economic argument. Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, respectively, set aside most of the left’s old economic orthodoxy in favour of a kinder, gentler, social democracy. With no transformational economic case left to make, it is no coincidence that the last 25 years have seen the left take up a transformational social case. It is also no coincidence that the wealthy in particular should be delighted by this.

It’s a simple equation: In a culture war, you do not attack your allies. There’s a reason why it is the case that in an era when corporations have grown more powerful than at any time in human history, the broad left have never been more comfortable with corporations. Dublin Pride’s list of corporate sponsors reads like a list of entities who might also, in times of yore, have funded a coup against a left wing Government in a South American country. Many big corporations these days ban trade unions entirely, or take extensive steps to ensure that those unions are not popular with their staff. Companies like Twitter and Facebook have the power and flexibility to sack thousands of staff at short notice, and it’s telling that the objections to them doing so were more pointed in the case of twitter than in the case of facebook, the latter being seen as a good left wing corporation, and the former being owned by hated Elon Musk. We’ve gone from “all corporations are bad” to “some corporations are a force for progressive change”.

It is this latter point that explains why characters like Mulvaney exist and can make money: Nobody is going to buy a beer because Mulvaney tells them to, but if an attack on Bud Lite becomes an attack on Mulvaney himself, then Bud Lite has an extra layer of protection. And nobody will look too closely at a corporation that is on their side. As for Nike and its history of horrendously exploitative sweatshops in Asia? Well, who cares about that, any more. Your concern about its labour practices is clearly just a disguised transphobic attack on Dylan Mulvaney, after all.

Your outrage, in other words, is the point. The purpose of what Nike and Bud Lite are doing here is not to sell more sports bras or bad beers, but to bind the most powerful cultural forces in society to them as their defenders and apologists. Once upon a time, big companies who wanted to own politicians handed over cash in brown envelopes. Now, they dare politicians to get on the wrong side of a force for progressive change. In effect, they’ve managed to buy the loyalty of the global progressive left for the cost of a hundred grand or whatever the fee was to Dylan Mulvaney: And that’s a lot cheaper than hiring lobbyists.

There’s nothing more to it than that.

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