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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Beer ads get personal

Officials celebrate in a frame grab provided by Anheuser Busch, makers of Bud Light, in this 2004 image. 
 (Associated Press / The Spokesman-Review)
Jim Suhr Associated Press

ST. LOUIS — The marketing battle between the world’s two biggest beermakers is getting increasingly nasty.

Miller Brewing Co. started the fight with TV spots showing a referee penalizing drinkers of Anheuser-Busch Cos.’ Budweiser and Bud Light. Calling their choice of suds “unbeermanlike” conduct, the ref replaces the beer with Miller Lite or Miller Genuine Draft.

Anheuser-Busch then fired back with commercials suggesting Miller’s referees were actually stealing the Bud Light for themselves, in some cases looking to run from police with their ill-gotten brews.

Although the commercials amused many consumers, some observers say they lack sportsmanship and maybe good sense. Even TV networks are stepping in, pulling some spots and refusing to debut others.

Critics say there are several problems with the ad campaigns: Some of the Miller commercials make unsubstantiated claims about its rival’s products, while the Bud spots include unlawful acts.

“To some degree, it has become unusually personal,” said Hoag Levins, editor and executive producer of Advertising Age magazine’s Web site, “Some of the advertising is really petty.”

And, he and others say, risky in that Anheuser-Busch’s public counteroffensives against Miller may legitimize the rival that has an 18 percent share of the U.S. beer market, a far cry from Anheuser-Busch’s dominant 50 percent.

“When you mention the competitor you’re trying to crush, are you inadvertently burning the competitor’s brand in the consumer’s mind?” Levins asks. “There’s a great deal of debate about how smart that is.”

According to some reports, ABC and ESPN rejected three proposed Anheuser-Busch spots spoofing the Miller ones.

ABC called the matter confidential, saying it never discloses dealings with its clients. ESPN also was silent. The Walt Disney Co., the corporate parent of both networks, referred inquiries to ESPN.

Anheuser-Busch, the No. 1 brewer, issued a statement saying only that its “ad campaigns are performing well in the marketplace and none have been pulled off the air by any networks.”

“We have no plans to pull the spots,” said Francine Katz, an Anheuser-Busch spokeswoman who credits them with improved sales of Bud Light and low-carb Michelob Ultra.

“We believe there’s no doubt these spots are part of our success,” she said. “I can tell you that people tell us our ads are hysterical and they love them. We look to entertain consumers; we don’t worry about what competitors like or don’t like about our commercials.”

She declined to discuss Anheuser-Busch’s advertising strategy, including whether its spots would continue challenging Miller by name.

Anheuser-Busch will have the edge during the Super Bowl on Feb. 6, because its purchase of ten 30-second commercials gives the company what’s known as category exclusivity, shutting out Miller and other brewers. With a 30-second spot going for an average $2.4 million, that puts Anheuser-Busch’s tab for the game at an estimated $24 million.

But Miller is taking its half of the battle further. The No. 2 brewer has launched its latest TV spot featuring a referee, with the plug showing an official using instant reply and declaring: “Upon further review, the call still stands. Miller Lite still has more taste and half the carbs of Bud Light.”

In going against a rival with nearly three times the domestic market share, “it is very beneficial for us to ask consumers to compare Miller’s beers versus Anheuser-Busch’s beers,” Miller spokesman Pete Marino said.

Last month, CBS, ABC and NBC pulled three Miller ads after Anheuser-Busch complained that nine Miller ads that aired since the summer were unsubstantiated and misleading. One of the pulled ads was considered unduly “disparaging.”