WASHINGTON — Bud Light sales have slumped 17% since Sen. Ted Cruz began hammering the beer-maker over a promotion featuring a transgender social media star.
“Go woke. Go broke,” he tweeted three weeks ago at the height of the conservative backlash.
It’s not the first time the Texas Republican has picked a fight with a mega-brand or riled the base over a cultural flashpoint.
But with Rep. Colin Allred of Dallas pitching himself as a more measured alternative in launching a Senate campaign, accusing Cruz of cynically manufacturing outrage, the senator may have to choose. Tone it down to broaden his appeal as he seeks a third term or double down to cement Republican support, at risk of driving moderates toward his Democratic rival.
“We’re seeing big business after big business embrace the radical left,” Cruz said on his podcast. “My first thought was, ‘Have they ever met a typical Bud Light drinker?… It is hard to imagine the ad exec who said, ‘This is really tapping into our demographic.”
Some marketing experts take issue with that.
Like smaller competitors, Anheuser-Busch InBev — the Belgian company that owns Bud Light and is the world’s largest beer-maker — has many audiences, including LGBTQ consumers, and uses a multitude of approaches to reach them.
“If that consumer wants and appreciates social advocacy, then that is a form of targeted marketing,” said Sean Blair, a marketing professor at Georgetown University’s business school, adding that Bud Light’s promotion featuring transgender social media influencer Dylan Mulvaney was meant to resonate with certain consumers.
In a short video on Instagram, where she has 1.8 million followers, Mulvaney cracks open a 24-ounce tallboy with her face on it to promote a $15,000 giveaway during the March Madness college basketball tournament.
“They look at the overall market and they say to themselves, ‘We can be much bigger. Our appeal is too limited in terms of … the type of person that they think Bud Light is for, and we want to broaden that,’” Blair said.
Cruz quipped that Mulvaney would be a better spokesperson for “dark cherry-flavored hard cider,” or cosmetics, than for Bud Light — a jab that didn’t go over well with the LGBTQ community.
“He’s taunting someone just for being queer [and] taunting an organization for hiring a queer person,” said Johnathan Gooch, communications director at Equality Texas. Eventually, he warned, such demonizing breeds violence, and “people will show up with guns at a drag show.”
“It’s nice to see Bud Light breaking some stereotypes. There are tons of LGBTQ people that drink Bud Light. And what of it?” Gooch said. “How does that impact anyone else’s rights? How does that impact the senator?”
Bud Light has produced rainbow aluminum bottles for several years, adopting a longtime symbol of LGBTQ pride. It made waves in 2016 with an ad featuring comedians Amy Schumer and Seth Rogen celebrating with Bud Light at a same-sex wedding.
Last May, Bud Light announced a partnership with the National LGBT Chamber of Commerce to amplify its outreach to LGBTQ consumers.
Cruz maintains the beer-maker crossed a line by working with Mulvaney, moving beyond target marketing and into social advocacy.
“I hope this serves as a warning to other companies: Just stay out of politics,” the senator said on his podcast. “Just sell your damn beer. Like, you don’t have to have a view on transsexuals, one way or the other. Like, why does a beer company need to engage in that?”
Two marketing executives have been suspended over the uproar.
Allred, launching his campaign to unseat Cruz next year, said the senator would rather “whip up phony culture wars” than solve Texans’ kitchen table problems.
Cruz hasn’t called for a boycott directly, though other Republicans in Congress have, including Reps. Dan Crenshaw of Humble, and Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia.
He has reveled in the company’s struggles.
“Common-sense folks across America have responded with a widespread boycott,” Cruz wrote in a fundraising appeal. “There are reports of Bud Light sales in freefall, as sports fans, working people, men and women, and folks from all walks of life reject this utterly toxic nonsense that’s even seeping into our beer now!”
Anheuser-Busch did not respond to requests for comment.
Cruz spokesperson Macarena Martinez criticized the attention given her boss’ repeated comments about Bud Light, instead of bipartisan efforts to combat illicit use of an animal tranquilizers, and to require clearer disclosure of fees on concert tickets.
“These bills [could]… have a real impact on your readers’ day-to-day lives,” Martinez said by email. “Bud Light should have stayed out of politics. Instead the beer company partnered with a far-left activist to push a woke agenda.”
Cruz has a history of employing crass humor to rile the conservative base.
Last August, he stereotyped coffee shop workers as lazy potheads whose votes Biden could buy through student loan forgiveness.
“If you are that slacker barista who wasted seven years in college studying completely useless things, now has loans and can’t get a job, Joe Biden just gave you 20 grand. Like, holy cow, 20 grand,” Cruz said on his podcast.
He added that “if you can get off the bong for a minute and go down to the voting station — or just send in your mail-in ballot that Democrats have helpfully sent you — it could drive up turnout.”
At conservative gatherings, he invariably draws laughs by mocking the growing practice at colleges to specify one’s preferred pronouns. “I’m Ted Cruz and my pronoun is ‘kiss my ass!’” he likes to quip.
Cruz has also joked that Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., has a penis, and that Al Franken, the comic and former senator who resigned amid allegations of inappropriate conduct in early 2018, is sexually obsessed with him. (Franken quipped in a book that “I like Ted Cruz more than most of my other colleagues like Ted Cruz. And I hate Ted Cruz.”)
When Cruz was running for president in 2016, he seized on a newly inflammatory issue — letting transgender women use women’s bathrooms — and used it to attack then-Republican frontrunner Donald Trump.
“If Donald Trump dresses as Hillary Clinton, he still can’t use the little girls’ restroom,” he said at a campaign stop in South Bend, Ind. “And I apologize for putting that image in your mind.”
Around the time of the March Madness promotion, Mulvaney, 26, was also celebrating the first year of her “Days of Girlhood” series on TikTok in which she chronicled her journey after coming out as transgender. In October, she spoke with President Joe Biden about trans issues.
Conservative commentators and celebrities reacted with attacks against Mulvaney and promises of boycotts. Musician Kid Rock posted a video of himself shooting cases of Bud Light, then turning to the camera and saying, “F— Bud Light and f— Anheuser-Busch.”
Crenshaw made his own boycott video, calling the promotion with Mulvaney “stupid” and vowing to throw out “every single Bud Light we’ve got in the fridge.” He then opened the fridge to reveal he had no Bud Light anyway.
“When you want to #boycottbudlight but then realize you don’t ever buy Bud Light,” he wrote in the caption.
Crenshaw’s fridge did, however, have cans of Karbach. That’s a Houston-based brewery also owned by Anheuser-Busch, as detractors pointed out.
AB InBev bought Anheuser Busch for $52 billion. Since the Mulvaney promotion, it has been pushing back against assertions, mostly on social media, that it’s on the verge of bankruptcy.
Industry experts agree the company remains financially sound, citing its rising stock price and billions in assets.
Anheuser-Busch wound up alienating some transgender customers, according to critics, by not supporting Mulvaney after the backlash erupted. In a statement, the company’s CEO didn’t mention the controversy, Mulvaney or any boycott specifically.
“We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people,” CEO Brendan Whitworth said in the statement. “We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”