Not Drinking Bud Light (Transphobically)
The right wing's rage for Anheuser-Busch is dumb, disorganized... and dangerous.
This piece by Dave Infante is adapted from Dave’s newsletter, Fingers. Fingers is an independent newsletter about drinking in America.
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For the past two weeks, hogs aplenty have been getting increasingly red-assed at Bud Light over the brand’s campaign with a trans influencer for all the same “reasons” as usual: reactionary bigotry, end of list. The specifics of this latest tempest in a Tea Party are, as you might suspect, very dumb. But the situation nevertheless demonstrates commodity brands’ emotional and political potency in the American zeitgeist, so I guess let’s talk about it.
How it started
This year, Anheuser-Busch InBev’s aging blue warhorse partnered with a trans woman and Broadway actor named Dylan Mulvaney, who has documented her recent transition on TikTok in a series she calls “Days of Girlhood.” To celebrate Mulvaney’s 365th Day of Girlhood, Bud Light sent her a custom can emblazoned with her face, and also hired her to promote a contest the brand is running for March Madness. This, coupled with the campy sportsball schtick Mulvaney does in the video, was enough to spin up the well-oiled right-wing outrage machine, which is now entering Week Three of whipping standard-issue transphobes and the“just asking questions” punditryto a froth over ABI’s temerity to *checks notes* pay a trans person with 10.8 million TikTok followers and 1.7 million Instagram followers to hawk its swill.
The initial backlash
All the usual suspects have been dumping slop in the trough, from Fox News, to the Babylon Bee, to the perfect-brained woke-thropologist Bethany Mandel, who out of malice or incompetence conflated a Bud Light rainbow-flag can release in Canada last year with this current situation. #GoWokeGoBroke, Bud Light, and Anheuser-Busch have all trended intermittently on Twitter since April 1st (when Mulvaney posted the inciting video), with bottom-feeding clout-chasers throughout the far-right ecosystem posting videos of themselves dumping Bud Light to own the libs, or whatever. There was a lot of “Bud Light forgot who actually drinks its beer” rhetoric, which is both funny—ABI is painfully aware of who is and isn’t drinking its flailing flagship—and vaguely revelatory in the way that it always sorta is to learn how American consumers project their politics onto brands that don’t give a shit about them. Midway through last week, the fabricated furor reached the the next joint of the conservative-media human centipede human: washed-up celebrities. Human goatee Robert “Kid Rock” Ritchie, who was so moved that he shot a bunch of Bud Light with an assault rifle. “Fuck Bud Light, and fuck Anheuser-Busch,” he said. A B-list country music performer named Travis Tritt bravely announced he’d stop asking venues for free Bud Light as part of his tour rider. Very cool and good stuff!
To Bud Light’s very, very limited credit, it did then, and continues to now, vaguely defended, rather than cut bait on, the campaign. Again, this likely has more to do with the actor’s enormous social reach and the brand’s struggle to shore up slipping sales with new drinkers than it does with any genuine pro-trans institutional sentiment (which would fly in the face of ABI’s recent political spending.) Besides, the Mulvaney can is a one-off, it’s not even for sale! So-called “gender critics” dumped their Bud Light regardless, wasting their time and money in an inconsequential performance of anger for #content. This little diaper-filling cycle has similar, albeit more pernicious, kayfabe vibes to that weird national moment where everyone dumped out vodka brands they thought were Russian in a mostly nice but misplaced show of support for Ukraine. But what it reminds me of the most is that halcyon moment in 2017 when Sean Hannity fans destroyed their own Keurigs in reaction to that brand’s decision to pull ads from the show over “alternative facts” or whatever. Man, we didn’t realize how good we had it back then, huh?
Rest assured, all those people went out and bought new Keurigs within a few months. And all the freaks 86’ing their Bud Light for far-right internet points right now will eventually drink Bud Light again, too. It’s not that the rage isn’t real; it’s all too real, actually, as I’ve argued before. But America’s seething conservative id is less interested in punishing supposedly “woke” corporations than it is in punishing trans people for existing. Bud Light’s campaign is just the reminder du jour that they do.
Notes on the Big Beer boycotts
Anyway, back to the here and now. With this manufactured outrage gripping the prion-encrusted lobes of America’s right-wing, some agitators made half-hearted attempts to shape the rage into a boycott of Bud Light, and ABI generally. But like Dim Fool Tim Pool notes above, “voting with your dollar” is mostly doomed to fail unless the company is very small or broadly disliked, and ABI is neither. (Despite my best efforts. Just kidding. Mostly.)
Ironically, there’s historical precedent for an actual boycott of a big beer company over LGBTQ+ issues. For three decades, labor unions, Chicano activists, and queer organizers led a blockade against Coors Brewing Company over the firm’s treatment of its workers and the eponymous family’s ultra-conservative political donations and activities. (Joe Coors was the co-founder and money-man of the Heritage Foundation, for example.) A major motivator in the boycott was the longstanding allegation that Coors subjected its employees to polygraph tests during which it asked invasive questions about the employees’ sexual preferences and history. Multiple workers have signed affidavits to this effect; the company has always confirmed the polygraph usage, but denied it asked questions about sexual history or discriminated on that basis. Hmm. As the boycott wore on and the guard changed at Coors, the company began to dump money into sponsorships and events for gay and lesbian causes. “What they were doing was sort of at the forefront of corporate social responsibility,” historian Dr. Allyson Brantley, author of Brewing A Boycott, told me. Pinkwashing has precedent in the beer business, bay-bee!
For the past couple weeks, anti-trans hordes have been posting videos of dumping out, shooting up, and swearing off Bud Light. They’re hooting and hollering “Go woke, go broke,” celebrating ABI’s perceived backpedaling, and promising never to drink another beer from the company. (Or from Molson Coors, which has been zealously reminding people that it, too, is an LGBTQ+ ally.) These are not serious people coordinating organized political pressure. This is the frothing id, the venting spleen of the conservative base; they’re undoubtedly dangerous (as you’ll see below), but they lack both market power and discipline. (For what it’s worth, they’re also taking aim at a corporation that routinely backs the political party intent on codifying trans people out of existence. “It’s like raaaaaaain…”) Bud Light is this week’s anti-woke bogeyman, but Kid Rock, Tim Pool, and Candace Owens are no Cesar Chavez, Larry Itliong, and Dolores Huerta. If ABI blinks here, it’ll be due to bloodless boardroom panic, not whatever fleeting impact this has on its sales or stock price. And it’ll be far more embarrassing than the run-of-the-mill pinkwashing that touched this whole thing off in the first place.
Online rage, IRL consequences
Just because this is all stupid and disorganized doesn’t mean it’s not dangerous. It is! For a long time, it was easy to pretend things that happened online were downstream of things that happened in real life, but at this point, that calculus is at best a wash, if not fully backwards. If I were ABI, or an ABI distributor, or even just a bar with a Bud Light neon in the window, I’d be making plans to beef up security for the next couple weeks, particularly given right-wing social media agitators are already trying to connect last month’s mass shooting in Nashville (where early reports, unconfirmed, suggested the shooter was trans) to Bud Light’s Mulvaney campaign by framing action against the brand as a way to “honor the victims.” Anti-trans right-wingers are on the warpath, and beer is extremely public-facing in a way that makes it a very obvious target.
(Unfortunately, craft breweries are already very much in the barrel on this. I’ve been covering how they’ve come under increased fire (literal and figurative) over the past nine months for hosting drag-themed events. These narratives are interrelated, and converging.)
And lo: as we enter the third week of this dismal circus, conservative operatives and media grifters have begun surfacing individual Anheuser-Busch InBev employees to their audiences in barely coy attempts to focus the anger on targets more vulnerable to online intimidation, IRL doxxing, and worse than the corporate macrobrewer as an institution.
On Sunday, The Federalist Society’s Will Chamberlain tweeted a photo of ABI’s vice president of communications, Jennifer Morris, telling his ~300,000+ followers she’s “positively giddy about using the alcohol giant ‘to bring more attention to DEI issues.’” In an article yesterday leaning on a trade publication’s anecdata that Bud Light might have taken a localized volume hit in rural areas over Easter weekend, Fox News made sure to name the brand’s vice president of marketing, Alissa Heinerscheid, noting that she’s previously argued that the beer’s “fratty” imagery and positioning has contributed to its decline, and any turnaround would have to attract new drinkers. (For what it’s worth: she’s right!) Heinerscheid’s quotes in Fox News are pulled from a podcast clip that went viral-in-the-bad-way on 4Chan and Elon Musk’s Twitter Sunday, where it’s been viewed millions of times thanks to shares from right-wing agitators like Ian Miles Cheong, Rogan O’Handley, and Oli London. Also the Barstool Sports subsidiary Old Row, because of course.
It was always headed here. Using employees’ faces to channel the rage against faceless institutions has been a popular conservative gambit for years. I don't think the fact that the two ABI employees that operatives have targeted thus far are women, and that one has an apparently Jewish surname, is an accident. It fits into the narrative that ABI, like other "woke corporations" (sigh), has been captured by a nefarious group of non-white, non-male, non-cisgender agents intent on indoctrinating the American drinking public with, I dunno, "multiculturalism," "globalism," and an ideology of prescriptive transgenderism that simply doesn't exist.
Where does this go next?
It’s not hard to guess, because it’s happened before. This tantrum will eventually subside, and you’ll see fewer videos of performative Bud Light destruction on TikTok, but the underlying anger won’t dissipate. Bud Light and its employees will be woven seamlessly into the “food and drink” quadrant of the delusional, deliberately vague right-wing conspiracy quilt, right next to other contemporary entries like Comet Ping Pong, Ben & Jerry’s, and Starbucks. Eventually, one of the hundreds of millions of people who have chugged this narrative will come out from behind their computer or TV or phone and try to do a bit of the old ultra-violence. The conservative hive mind has settled on some faces and names to embody Bud Light’s supposed transgressions; those employees, and other workers, are in real danger, stochastic though it may be. I really, really hope ABI, and everybody who carries its products, is taking that seriously.
Going through life this way sounds utterly exhausting.
I really really want one of these stupid boycotts to actually get carried through, just to see what the actual effect is. Like, does InBev actually end up caring that the bigots won't drink their products anymore? Or is it a drop in the bucket compared to their total annual sales?
Mostly I want that to happen so that InBev could tweet back at the Ultra Right Beer dude something like "We're sorry you're ditching our product, but during your boycott, our sales increased 10% year-over-year, so we'll be okay," or some such.