Corn syrup. Two words no beer drinker ever really cared about in the first place, but also two words we can’t seem to get away from. So viscous and slow. So sticky. Like this thing. Beer ogre Anheuser-Busch really wants to keep those two words in beer drinkers’ heads, and here I am only a pawn in its master plan (designed and directed by its red right hand).
Remember back in February, during Super Bowl LIII, when Anheuser-Busch aired that anti-corn syrup campaign above? No one will let you forget it. Both of Anheuser-Busch’s Super Bowel LIII Bud Light commercials continued A-B’s Medieval Dilly Dilly theme — one was an impressively violent Game of Thrones mashup and the other was a very specific attack on beer using corn syrup — specifically Miller Lite and Coors Light — which are both mentioned in the ad.
The next day almost everyone on the internet debunked the idea that the use of corn syrup is a health or quality concern for beer drinkers (say, compared to alcohol). Sorry unbelievers, it’s actually the alcohol part of beer that’s really not very healthy for you. What a rub, right?
By March, MillerCoors had begun litigation with Anheuser-Busch, which it said “plotted an extensive and pervasive advertising scheme designed to frighten consumers into switching away from Miller Lite and Coors Light to Bud Light.” MillerCoors also released an equally awkward advertising response.
The checkers pieces being moved by these two beer giants could have implications for how ingredients should or could be listed in alcohol packaging — especially transformative ingredients like corn syrup that are used for fermenting in beer but not for sweetening. So MillerCoors can actually say, yeah, corn syrup is not in the final product, but Anheuser-Busch apparently also wants to say (loudly) that it doesn’t use the adjunct in the process. But it does. Just not in Bud Light. We did a deep dive on the subject back in May.
What Anheuser-Busch fails to point out in its campaign against Miller Lite (and Coors Lite as well) is that the difference between fermenting beer with corn syrup versus rice (as used in Bud Lite) has no nutritional effect on the final product. Parenthetically, Anheuser-Busch also excludes the fact that corn syrup is listed as an ingredient in several of its beverages — Bud Ice, Busch, Busch Ice, Busch Lite, Natural Ice and Natural Light, included. In any event, the St. Louis-based brewer’s advertising strategy has resulted in litigation.
MillerCoors has filed a complaint against Anheuser-Busch alleging causes of action for false advertising and trademark dilution. Essentially, MillerCoors contends that the Anheiser-Busch campaign (including the Superbowl ad) is misleading — not because MillerCoors doesn’t use corn syrup (it does) — but because implicit in the advertisements is that MillerCoors uses high fructose corn syrup, which is not true.
More to the point, by showcasing the use of corn syrup by MillerCoors, Anheuser-Busch is, in effect, confusing customers who largely believe that corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup — which is linked to obesity and other health risks — are one and the same. That being said, what’s most interesting about this litigation is a question posed by MillerCoors — whether corn syrup is even an ingredient in Miller Lite and Coors Lite. The answer is relevant to all brewers — even craft brewers that don’t use adjuncts (sugars or carbohydrates that are cheaper than malted barley, the traditional grain in beer) — because it’ll inform how ingredients can be treated in advertisement.
Yesterday, MillerCoors issued a press release noting that federal judge William Conley of the Western District of Wisconsin issued a preliminary injunction against Anheuser-Busch, barring the brewer from using any “no corn syrup” language on its Bud Light beer packaging. The order extends an injunction issued back in May that’s supposed to bar Anheuser-Busch from making zany corn syrup claims in advertising from television to billboards.
If you haven’t noticed, certain Bud Light packaging on six-packs, 12-packs and 24-packs say “No Corn Syrup” as part of Anheuser-Busch’s — Hops. Barley. Water. Rice. Only the finest ingredients. Wait, rice? Campaign. Example below:
I reached out to Anheuser-Busch’s press folks. Very quickly they sent this statement, attributable to a collective conscious known as the A-B spokesperson.
Bud Light is brewed with no corn syrup — plain and simple. We look forward to defending our right to inform beer drinkers of this fact at trial and on appeal. MillerCoors is resisting consumer demands for transparency in the ingredients used to brew its beers, but those demands are here to stay. We will continue leading this movement in the beer industry.
MillerCoors, rebuttal? From the press release:
Again, the federal courts have found Anheuser-Busch’s use of “no corn syrup” to describe Bud Light could mislead consumers to believe that Miller Lite and Coors Light contain corn syrup in their final products.
This is the second injunction ruling stemming from a federal lawsuit filed by MillerCoors against Anheuser-Busch, arguing a recent Bud Light ad campaign intentionally deceived the public. The previous injunction ruling barred Anheuser-Busch from using similar language featured in the recent ad campaign in any future commercials, print advertising or social media. That ruling also ordered Anheuser-Busch to stop running certain TV ads, to take down certain billboards, and forced Anheuser-Busch to change portions of its website because the information was misleading. The federal court also previously denied Anheuser-Busch’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit.
You guys. It’s another classic chapter in the Big Beer back and forth between MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch. Let’s break it down by market share because that’s what it’s all about. In 2008, Anheuser-Busch Inbev held 48.8 percent of the U.S. beer market. In 2018, that’s down to 40.8 percent. In 2008, MillerCoors held 29.4 percent of the U.S. beer market. In 2018, that was down to 23.5 percent. That industry data comes from the National Beer Wholesalers Association. Today, there are more than 7,500 breweries in America (the majority craft), and the beer market overall continues to shrink as youngsters gravitate toward other beverage categories.
Where do we go from here? According to this solid Yahoo story:
In Wednesday’s decision, Milwaukee-based U.S. District Judge William Conley said Anheuser-Busch can use the packaging it has until it runs out, or until March 2020, whichever comes first. The decision says that as of June 6, Anheuser-Busch had printed 64 million packages worth $27.7 million with the “No Corn Syrup” icon.
MillerCoors had asked Conley to force Anheuser-Busch to cover the corn syrup icon with a sticker, but Anheuser-Busch claimed those stickers would cost $76 million, an estimate Conley said was “absurdly high.”
These people are all absurdly high.