Woke Dylan Mulvaney campaign was destined to be a Bud Light failure
Bud's base felt they'd been dissed, and they were right
Partnering with celebrity influencers was nothing new for Budweiser. So their VP of Marketing, Alissa Heinerscheid reckoned it could work for a beer with declining sales that, in her view, required a less “fratty” image. Since Bud Light had already proven itself supportive of LGBT causes, Heinerscheid had no reason to believe that the choice to partner with the “365 days of becoming a girl” celebrity would backfire. But, on April 1, when Mulvaney posted a photo of a custom-designed gift from Heinerscheid: a can of Bud Light with Mulvaney’s face on it, Budweiser’s troubles began. Heinerscheid is now on indefinite leave (a second other senior executive would soon follow).
It’s not as if Alissa Heinerscheid was inexperienced or stupid. She had been with Budweiser for years, and knew her craft. It was Heinerscheid, for example, who oversaw HBO’s satirically pitch-perfect 2019 Game-of-Thrones themed Super Bowl ad, one of the best ads I’ve ever seen. But somewhere between the 2019 Super Bowl and the Dylan Mulvaney catastrophe that by mid-April had lost Budweiser an estimated $6 billion in market capitalization — its retail sales plunged by 17 per cent from last year, while rival brands Coors Light and Miller each grew by 17.6 per cent — Heinerscheid’s sense of humour deserted her.
Dylan Mulvaney is a 26-year old biological male, who was accepted by family and peers in his theatrical milieu as merely flamboyantly gay, up until March 2021. It strikes me that if someone was really were serious about a gender change, they would say they were becoming a “woman,” not a “girl.” Mulvaney’s personality and demeanour are much the same as before the transitioning, but with new costumes and makeup.
Mulvaney’s 365 day gig radiates “camp” performance. The essence of camp, a style of self-presentation associated with gay men, philosopher Susan Sontag wrote, is “its love of the unnatural: of artifice and exaggeration.” Camp is defined in the urban dictionary as “being so extreme that it has an amusing and sometimes perversely sophisticated appeal.” Exactly. The whole point about camp performance is that both the performer and the “sophisticated” audience are in on the joke.
Mulvaney’s gambit is paying off handsomely. From the minute the 365 days gig began, fame, followers and real money have come Mulvaney’s way. With endorsements from fashion brands like Kate Spade, Ulta Beauty and others, Mulvaney has reportedly earned more than a million dollars. Then there’s the “love ya”— themed merch you can buy on Mulvaney’s website, an unspecified “portion” of which goes to an LGBT project. Not bad, considering the Covid lockdown had left Mulvaney, at that time a member of the Book of Mormon musical ensemble, unemployed, with time to kill, “and without the creative means to do what I loved.”
What Mulvaney “loved” was entertaining people, in this case through an over-the-top parody of girlhood that is campy and played for laughs. The Bud Light ad itself hit much the same tone. The sophisticates should have laughed. But they were afraid to. The sophisticated actor Drew Barrymore kneeled reverently on air before Mulvaney, and at the White House where Mulvaney informed President Biden that “this is my 221st day of publicly transitioning,” that sophisticated champion of trans rights responded, “God love you.” Unsophisticated people — otherwise known as Budweiser’s “market” — weren’t afraid to laugh. They simply didn’t find Mulvaney’s antics in the bubble bath funny or in any way relatable. They felt they’d been dissed by a brand unaware of what would appeal to its core customers, and they were right.
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The backlash to the Mulvaney Bud Light ads was explosive, best summed up in a “What the f— were you thinking” video posted on Twitter that showed an entire grocery refrigerator of empty, sold-out shelves of beer, with only the Budweiser inventory completely untouched. It wasn’t only flyover-country conservative Americans who objected. Progressive trans icon Caitlin Jenner expressed dismay over one of Mulvaney wearing revealing “shopping shorts” and singing “Normalize the bulge. We are normalizing the bulge.” She wrote, “Let’s not ‘normalize’ any of what this person is doing. This is absurdity!” A Reddit poster wrote: “…the way Dylan made a show of her transition really rubs me the wrong way. Like her trans identity was a new car she just brought home from the dealership.”
Budweiser attempted damage control with a soothing statement from Brendan Whitworth, parent company Anheuser-Busch’s CEO: “We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.” It didn’t work. Calls for a boycott continued. Panicked, its back to the wall, Anheuser-Busch was forced to go nuclear in self-defence. Yep, the Clydesdale option.
In exactly the kind of sappy ad that helped make Budweiser a best-selling beer (21.7m views by Apr 14), they rolled out all the reliable tropes: a Budweiser Clydie galloping across America; a manly voice-over with a story about beer that is “bigger than beer,” because it’s “rooted in the heart of America,” where there is — segue to flag going up — “hope in tomorrow.” This is — the powerful Clydie rears up majestically — “the story of the American spirit.” If you’re a little “verklempt” watching this ad, you’re Bud Light’s base.
Will it work? Maybe not, but at least it won’t incite any customers to take their remaining Bud Lights into the back yard and shoot them to death.
If it’s any consolation to Budweiser, Miller High Life beer has just come upon a marketing blunder of its own. More than 2,300 cans of their beer was destroyed in Europe for bearing the logo, “the Champagne of Beers.” Seems the word Champagne can only be applied to sparkling wines made in that region. Oops. Moral for beers and every other profit-linked product: Know your markets and respect their values.