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Complaints to Beer Institute Over Bud Light Super Bowl Commercials Show Why Activists Get Nowhere On Ads

For decades, public health activists have targeted beer ads for ubiquity, specific messages they find offensive, alleged appeal to youth and more. Their efforts to restrict ads and/or alter the messaging consistently fail in the courts (often due to 1st Amendment issues), before legislatures and, we'd submit, in the court of public opinion. The US Federal Trade Commission has supported and praised self-regulation in this area, even while suggesting tweaks to voluntary ad codes. The Beer Institute, Distilled Spirits Council and Wine Institute code review boards receive very few complaints and very rarely find ads that violate the codes, yet another sign that self-regulation works. Even the most vocal critics refrain from making complaints to these boards about specific ads, likely knowing they have no case and not wishing to become part of a process that so clearly works. (Note: this same article appeared in our INSIGHTS Express letter.)

Case in point. Between January 2014 and June 2016, Beer Institute got a grand total of 2 complaints about beer ads. Both involved AB Super Bowl ads for Bud Light, one in 2014 and one in 2016. Reading the extensive report prepared by BI's 3-member review board shows they meticulously analyzed the ads and the complaints, justifiably finding neither violated BI's code. The 2014 ad was "Epic Night." The complaint alleged that the ad violated the code's bar of showing open containers in a public space (it didn't), promoted excessive consumption (it didn't) and, hilariously, posed "hazardous risk to the safety and welfare" of a llama depicted in an elevator with actor Don Cheadle (!!). The review board found that "the elevator was plenty large enough for the llama" and pointed out "with respect to the llama, we did review the commercial carefully and we did not believe the llama was in any danger or was in any way abused." The board similarly dismissed allegations that the ad appealed primarily to youth, used underage-looking actors and suggested the central character would not have achieved "social success without the consumption" of Bud Light.

The alleged 2016 "violation" was equally ridiculous. The complainant complained that the Super Bowl "Caucus" ad with Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen appealed primarily to youth and that it contained lewd/indecent language. Indeed, he wrote that "This is a 'cock' ad plain and simple. It degrades the brand and the industry." Recall, Amy responds to Seth's point that "we have the biggest caucus in the country" by saying: "But it's not like too big. Like you can handle it." He also claimed the ad in "very bad taste" and suggested a "similarly veiled" ad involving a part of the female anatomy in the same region, using another 4-letter lewd word himself, "would not be acceptable." (In this instance, the complaint was far more offensive than anything that could be found in the ad.) What's more, according to the report, during the process the complainant had sent AB an email "that directed offensive statements to an Anheuser-Busch employee." AB subsequently cut off communications with him. In their analysis, the review board rejected the notion the ad had "special appeal" to youth and noted the Super Bowl audience in 2016 was 82% adult, well above the 71.6% guideline that BI members adhere to. Nor did they find the ad lewd, noting "the mere use of a sexually suggestive pun would not be seen as 'vile'…patently offensive or offending recognized standards of good taste." For support, they referred to a conversation on "Live with Kelly and Michael" with the hosts joking about the size of an iPhone, and the 2016 Republican Presidential nominee's discussion of his hand size during the primary campaign. Net-net: the review board found that both petitioners totally missed the humorous angles of the ads. Imagine that.  

Publishing Info

  • Year: 2016
  • Volume: 33
  • Issue #: 7
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