Dissecting #CornGate

Dear Client:

There’s so much to unpack on A-B’s controversial Super Bowl ads calling out Miller Lite and Coors Light for using corn syrup in their recipe, I don’t even know where to start. But we gotta start somewhere.

Let’s get one thing out of the way. I had several A-B folks point out that A-B did not “cast the first stone” as we wrote yesterday, since MillerCoors has been taunting Bud Light and Mich Ultra for months on calories and carbs.

This is true. MillerCoors started the fire. But it was always burning since the world’s been turning. We’d have to go back to the 1970s to see who cast the very first stone. This has been a rivalry that has been heated for decades.

And #cornsyrupstirup in particular has actually been going on for well over a hundred years. We’d have to go back to 1893, when A-B first admonished competing brewers for using corn in an ad in Punch Magazine, where A-B states corn can cause “stupidity and drowsiness.” I guess there was no Ad Council back then. (h/t @StanHieronymus)

CORN AND THE GMO ISSUE. But more recently, recall the mini-scandal in 2014 when the self-styled “Food Babe” (Vani Hari) made the specious claim that Guinness contained fish bladders or something, which spurred both A-B and MillerCoors to publicly list the ingredients in their top brands.

But what the Food Babe was really after was the use of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) in crops …. mainly corn. There simply isn’t any corn grown in the U.S. today that can be certified completely GMO-free. The wind and birds can’t be contained when it comes to seeds.

The big issue is that traces of foreign DNA in corn that would allow laboratories to identify as GMO-positive do not survive the processing when corn is turned into syrup. So, the companies that provide corn syrup cannot guarantee that their syrup is GMO-free, as we understand. (Taco Bell weathered the storm a few years back when people raised the prospect that their corn-based taco shells were GMO). There’s no definitive proof that GMOs are bad for you, but tell that to the Food Babe and her millions of Millennial followers.

TRANSPARENCY IS IN. And A-B knows this whole transparency thing is in the zeitgeist. As Nielsen shared last week at our Beer Industry Summit, 67% of North Americans surveyed said they wanted to know everything in their food, and more than half said the disinclusion of bad things was preferable to the inclusion of good ones.

BUT WHAT IS THE REACH? While the Bud Light #CornHate ads didn’t rate that great with Super Bowl watchers, (“Special Delivery” ranked No. 17 in USA Today’s AdMeter ranking, while “Trojan Horse Occupants” and “Medieval Barbers” came in at Nos. 37 and 43, respectively), the mere fact that over 120 million people saw the ads must have an impact. As of 4pm Monday, “corn syrup in beer” was the most common search term on Google related to beer.

As one reader put it, it seems like their strategy with #GetThatCornOuttaMyFace “is to play to anti-vaccine housewives across America. No corn syrup…. No GMOs. All the things people fall for nowadays because they read a meme on Facebook.” There’s a lot of people out there that fit that description.

And Bud Light doubled down on their website, comparing BL, ML, and CL ingredients prominently. Quite a change from “Bud Light Party” images of years’ past.

A KNOWN BLIND SPOT FOR MC? One source reveals that #corngater or whatever you want to call it has been a long-known blind spot for Miller Lite and Coors Light.

Certain MC employees had raised the issue in the company as a potential liability several years ago, and now there’s not much MillerCoors can do about it as all their breweries are plumbed for corn syrup, and even the Golden brewery’s cereal cookers have been scrapped. The fact is, A-B’s breweries can switch from rice cereal to corn syrup and vice versa, and MillerCoors’ breweries cannot, we understand.

The huge corn industry is something that can back them up — #corngatefreight if you will. Plus the science, as it really makes little difference once the sugars are fermented. But how much of that can be pushed to the consumer in a simple way?

DISPARAGING, ILLEGAL COMMENTS? Another angle that has arisen in the #cornporn ad’s aftermath: Could these ads be actionable for being disparaging — i.e. suggesting that their competitor’s use of corn is bad — under TTB rules?

“The Bud Light ad re CORN SYRUP is illegal and disparaging in its appearance and context insinuating there is something BAD with corn syrup,” one industry insider wrote to us, citing parts of the TTB code that govern “prohibited statements.” The code reads thusly:

§7.54 Prohibited statements.
(a) General prohibition. An advertisement of malt beverages must not contain:

(1) Any statement that is false or untrue in any material particular, or that, irrespective of falsity, directly, or by ambiguity, omission, or inference, or by the addition of irrelevant, scientific or technical matter, tends to create a misleading impression.
(2) Any statement that is disparaging of a competitor’s products.

Indeed, we asked Bud Light chief Andy Goeler if they were at all afraid that MillerCoors might try to take action against the #cornarator spots, or if they fall under some fair comment and criticism and/or truth shield. (Anyway, we assume A-B lawyers have done their due diligence.)

“I don’t know, to be honest,” Andy said. “The approach we took is really a typical Bud Light way of doing it. The brand is all about fun. We’re a lighthearted, fun brand, [and] in our creative that’s what we portray… one of the reasons people do love the brand.” He added that the campaign is “really all about Bud Light. About us. We’re saying: we don’t use these ingredients.”

But A-B’s achilles heal is that they use corn syrup in many of their own products, as MillerCoors’ Peter Frost notes — Busch Light, Natural Light, Bon & Viv Spiked Seltzers — and so do other respected brewers — Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, Russian River’s Pliny the Elder and Corona Extra. “The list of beers goes on and on. Each use a corn-derived sugar or corn syrup called dextrose.”

A-B’s brands which use dextrose can be seen below:

BOTTOM LINE: One thing is for sure, a lot of people now know that there’s a lot of corn syrup and rice in their beers, which even the dullest consumers recognize as carbohydrates. Tito’s, Casamigos, Johnnie Walker, and weed are the winners here.

On the other hand, A-B just put all light beers on blast on the greatest show of the year, so maybe light beers are at least in the conversation. #CornShuckIt


#CornGate is on and popping. Miller Lite took out a full page ad in the New York Times this morning to respond to Bud Light’s Super Bowl spots. The letter basically says, ‘sure, we use corn syrup, but we still taste better.’ Read it in full below.

Dear Beer Drinkers of America,

You may have seen an ad on the Big Game going to great lengths to explain that Miller Lite is brewed with “corn syrup,” while Bud Light is not. That’s a fact. Miller Lite is indeed brewed with “corn syrup.” We’d like to thank our competitors for taking the time and money to point out this exciting fact to such a large, national audience not once, but twice.

You see, the “corn syrup” we source from America’s heartland helps make Miller Lite taste so great. [We should mention that a majority of American beer drinkers agree that Miller Lite has more taste than Bud Light. So, when we say Miller Lite has great taste, it’s not puffery. It, like the “corn syrup,” is a fact.] But back to that syrup.

What might have gotten a little lost between the parties and wings on Sunday is the distinction between “corn syrup” and high-fructose corn syrup. To be clear, “corn syrup” is a normal part of the brewing process and does not even end up in your great tasting can of Miller Lite.

It’s unfortunate that our competitor’s Big Game ad created an unnecessary #corntroversy. However, we thank them for starting this conversation on such a big stage because it allows us to clarify the truth and remind beer drinkers that Miller Lite has more taste than Bud Light with fewer calories and half the carbs.

That’s just a fact.

We’re told this isn’t the last place we’ll see this open letter, look for MillerCoors to play it up on their social media channels and more. Let’s see how this move plays out.

Until tomorrow,

Harry, Jenn, and Jordan

“There are two types of people–those who come into a room and say, ‘Well, here I am!’ and those who come in and say, ‘Ah, there you are.'” – Frederick L Collins

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