Commentary

Bud Tries Humor To Douse Watered-Down Claim

Using full-page ads in 10 Sunday newspapers, Anheuser-Busch InBev humorously, if indirectly, addresses a class-action lawsuit filed in several states last week that claims the brewer waters down several of its brands, and that the actual alcohol content of the brewski does not reflect the amount indicated on the label.

"They must have tested one of these," reads the headline over a picture of a can of water borrowed from a cache of 71 million that A-B InBev says it donated to the American Red Cross and disaster relief organizations across the globe. “But in every other circumstance, the Anheuser-Busch logo is our ironclad guarantee that the beer in your hand is the best beer we know how to brew,” the copy reads. “"We take no shortcuts and make no exceptions. Ever.”

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Joshua Boxer, the plaintiff’s lead attorney, has claimed that added water cuts alcohol content by 3 – 8%, according to information gathered from former employees of the company’s U.S. breweries, some of them in high-level positions, the AP reports. Yesterday’s ads do not directly address that issue, and Boxer labeled them “classic non-denial denials.”

The suits, seeking at least $5 million in damages, so far have been filed in California, Colorado, Ohio, Missouri, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Texas. 

“It’s a completely groundless law suit, it’s opportunism in a litigious society to try to do this,” Paul Chibe, AB InBev’s vp of marketing in the U.S., told the UK’s Marketing Week. “We are proud of our beer, we are proud of our brewing, we are proud of what we do day in day out and we are 100% … 1,000% compliant with labeling law in this country.”

The St. Louis Post Dispatch’s Lisa Brown wrote a story over the weekend that traced the company’s response to the suit before the ads appeared in publications including the New York Times and Los Angeles Times. Experts told her that AB-InBev needed to do more than it had to counteract the “bad buzz” from the lawsuits. 

“The reality is, Budweiser is a remarkable product and has greater consistency than any other beer in the world,” Bill Finnie, an adjunct professor of strategy at Washington University’s Olin Business School and a former A-B executive, told Brown. “This is an opportunity for A-B to say: These are the facts about how mainstream beers are brewed. They need to communicate their passion for the product and what that means as far as quality, for the consumer.”

In fact, tests conducted on Budweiser, Bud Light Lime, and Michelob Ultra last week by San Diego's White Labs at the request of NPR “were found to be in line with their advertised alcohol content,” Dan Bobkoff and Bill Chappell reported on NPR.org.

Similarly, CNN’s Michael Martinez reports that he drew an assignment “every old school journalist wants.” CNN commissioned an independent test of the Budweiser, Bud Light Lime and Bud Ice and, although it found slightly lower levels of alcohol than the labels for each stated, “the sample test results you provided are well within the variability of the all-natural brewing process and all in full compliance with all alcohol labeling laws,” Peter Kraemer, vp of brewing and supply for Anheuser-Busch, tells him.

The suits also allege that seven other brands are watered down: Bud Lite Platinum, Michelob, Michelob Ultra, Hurricane High Gravity Lager, King Cobra, Busch Ice and Natural Ice. 

Plaintiff’s attorney Boxer tells CNN that it should have gone after the brewer’s internal numbers on alcohol content, which is what he will be doing in court, because they are “more accurate.” He claims that a bottle of Budweiser has 4.7% alcohol instead of the label's 5% figure and that the difference amounts to “tens of millions” of dollars in savings for A-B InBev over the course of a year.

Back in the heyday of the Beer Wars, in the last decade of the last century of the last millennium, at a time when Miller was Miller and Bud was Bud, you might have expected the latter to take advantage of the situation. 

Remember that Miller Lite campaign out of Leo Burnett: “You can expect great things with the great taste that's never watered down”? It was an attempt to play off the “Tastes Great” part of one of Ad Age’s “Top 10 Slogans of the Century,” and the brilliant positioning established by Ted Bates,” as the New York Times’ Stuart Elliott reported at the time.

No? Apparently not too many other people did either. A little more than a year after it broke in November 1994, Miller’s trademark on the phrase already carried the status “ABANDONED - AFTER PUBLICATION.” You might say that it didn’t carry water. Whether the lawsuits do remains to be seen.

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