Bud Light 'Fan Can' Brewing Up Trouble
The folks who make and market Bud understand as much. With college football kicking off this week, they've unveiled a similar strategy to sell their flagship brew. They call it the Fan Can, a can of Bud Light festooned in the colors of a couple dozen or so major college football teams like Texas, Kansas, Michigan (it's still a major program), Boston College and Maryland, where I teach part-time.
I'm sure a bunch of Longhorns, Jayhawks and Terps fans will all but blindly snap up Bud Light cans dressed in their favorite school's colors just like I did Redskins wine. I'm sure the Bud people want and expect that to happen.
There's just one little problem: Redskins wine was aimed at fanatical NFL fans who happened to be adults that acted like idiot kids; the Fan Can is aimed at fanatical college football fans who happen to be mostly kids that want to act like idiot adults. The drinking age in this country is 21. The majority of people on most college campuses in this country are younger.
This is like the tobacco industry using stylish lifestyle images to hawk its carcinogens on the public.
I don't mean to sound Pollyannish. I drank alcohol in college on a campus in a city, Evanston, Ill., that at the time was dry and home to the Women's Christian Temperance Union that spearheaded Prohibition in the '20s. And when I get done with this column I'm going to meet some friends at a fine establishment in downtown D.C. to celebrate a birthday with fine food and alcoholic beverage. But this isn't about me. It's about a multi-billion dollar company having some modicum of respect for our nation's laws if not our nation's youth. Sure, they're going to drink. But do you have to lead them to water?
What does Anheuser-Busch, the Bud Light brewer, care, though? Bud Light isn't just its leading brand; it is the nation's top brand. And like most everything else with a price on it these days, Bud Light sales are in the bottom of the barrel. Some beer industry prognosticators have predicted Bud Light is heading to its first sales decline in over a quarter century. So let's get those kids to boost sales!
"We called them [Anheuser-Busch]," Janet Evans, a senior attorney for the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees alcohol advertising, told me Thursday. "When you're dealing with college campuses, you're dealing with an unusually high underage population. And you've got a high level of binge drinking. It's a question of responsibility. We asked them to stop."
Bud Light's makers said, sure. If a college complains, it will cease its campaign in that community. Maryland has complained. So have a bunch of other universities.
The Associated Press reported last week that Boston College was among several schools that sent letters objecting to the use of its colors -- maroon and gold at BC -- on Bud Light cans. It sent letters on its own and through its athletic conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The AP said the college pointed to trademark infringement but was most concerned about the message the advertising sent about drinking and was concerned others would think the university was helping conduct the campaign.
"We think it's an ill-conceived and inappropriate campaign that runs counter to our collective efforts to combat underage drinking," the AP quoted BC spokesman Jack Dunn.
Anheuser-Busch's response: The AP said the brewer informed BC that it had a right to market its product using colors associated with the school.
"Nonetheless, in order to avoid a dispute over the concerns raised by your letter, Anheuser-Busch has decided not to proceed with Fan Cans in such color combinations in your community at this time," the brewer said in a letter to BC that BC shared with the AP.
That shouldn't have been a difficult to reach conclusion for Anheuser-Busch. Like other makers of beer and spirits in this country, it has agreed to FTC guidelines, the FTC lawyer said, not to market to sports with a population base that isn't at least 70 percent at or above the drinking age.
"I think they made a mistake," Evans said.
I think they stuck a wet finger in the air and decided the wind was blowing their way.
This was good reason why Bud Light's brewers acted as if they wouldn't encounter much if any blowback from their goofy new campaign replete with a screaming head television commercial that was likely to make all of us go batty. For starters, there is already a lot of beer -- and who knows what other mind-dulling potions -- on college campuses, and always has been. (I was part of a student government campaign at Northwestern that convinced the city and administration to allow a rathskeller in the student union building based on the argument it would cut down on alcoholism because so many kids were hoarding alcohol illegally and, as a result, were more likely to binge drink. They bought it!)
On top of that, take a peek at your cupboard or bar holding drinking glasses. See a beer stein with your alma mater's mascot on it or shot glasses with your alma mater's seal? I bet you do. They are readily available at most any campus bookstore or, if you're out of town, conveniently had online.
I asked FTC lawyer Evans about that apparently disingenuous message from universities now crying foul.
"I can't answer that," she said.
We're all in cahoots.