In a divisive year in which the U.S. Presidential and multiple Congressional seats are uncertain, candidates have drawn upon large pools of corporate support to fund campaigns. The messages within the commercials we see during our favorite screen shows contain many of the same themes that have emerged in the 2016 elections. Research-grounded climate change continues to divide political parties, and it scares big corporations who produce the largest carbon footprint of all. The messages of campaigns and corporate products have a significant common element: they use embedded messages to divide their audiences into groups. That division reinforces the wishes of corporate sponsors, who seek to maintain their power and influence, regardless of the effect on society and our world.
Budweiser, that “King of Beers,” has been strategically advertising its products since 1852 when salespeople provided beer trays for taverns. Throughout its long history, Budweiser has reflected the times through specific social messages that connected beer drinkers with its products. That advertising expertise is evident in a 2016 Budweiser commercial which recently aired during the World Series.
As we analyze this commercial, we not only see the marvel and complexity of marketing; we see how international corporations embed messages within their texts to perpetuate systems, institutions, and structures that privilege some and diminish others, such as those of us in the world of sustainable living, who threaten the status quo. This is often referred to hegemony at work.
The commercial is titled “Budweiser’s Not Backing Down.” Iconography of large scale brewing machinery, hands of hard-working employees, people drinking Budweiser hungrily, bands, athletes, dancers, and the ubiquitous Budweiser Clydesdales appear in a montage. The overt theme is that Budweiser will not allow craft beers to surpass it in popularity, and it places this theme within the idea that Budweiser is not for everyone, but this Bud’s for you.
The commercial is divided into sections, and each section has a marker phrase that encapsulates the message within that section. Let’s look at these sections and deconstruct how Budweiser moves beyond a superficial theme about product competition to see how it has Othered certain individuals and groups within society. Sustainability initiatives, by definition, fall into these Othered categories.
Budweiser’s message: The Clydesdales are the biggest and most formidable of all horses. If you want to be on the side of power and dominance, stick with us at the Budweiser Corporation. We’re on the side of Big Horses and Big Business.
Oppositional reading: Budweiser — and other international corporations — can exert power in ways you haven’t even imagined. Don’t even think about siding with the little guy, um, I mean, horse, or you’ll regret it.
NOT A HOBBY
Budweiser’s message: Budweiser is a full-time, established brewery with over 150 years of experience. Why would you want to choose a craft beer to drink when its makers are little more than homebrewing hobbyists? The 3,500+ craft breweries in the world comprise only about 12% of the market, although Anheuser’s U.S. sales have declined for the third time in four years.
Oppositional reading: Craft breweries and other innovative startups are slowly yet incrementally gaining a market share of a huge and formerly closed industry. If craft breweries can do it, what’s next? Vegan restaurants? Almond milk in every refrigerator? Cleantech startups?
Budweiser’s message: Because we at Budweiser are a really big international corporation, we have a whole lot of resources to draw upon. If we want to, we’ll just buy up small breweries coast-to-coast, and that will stop any of you who think you can usurp our history, legacy, and influence.
Oppositional reading: Innovative startups: you’ve got Budweiser and other corporations pretty nervous! They’ve got you on their proverbial radar, and they are totally wary that you’re going to steal their business with your clever ideas, energetic approaches, and technology skills. And that means you: organic nurseries, biofuel manufacturers, solar light makers.
Budweiser’s message: Budweiser is a beer for people who like to drink. If you’re somebody who likes keg parties, drinking right up until the 7th inning shut-off, and last call, then Bud’s going to give you the fun time you’re searching for. People who sip aren’t real drinkers, are they?
Oppositional reading: People who are deliberate in their choices, who consider multiple points of view and evidence that may challenge culturally-transmitted beliefs, can’t really join in the fun of mainstream society. The corporate world doesn’t want you to gain voice and join in one of the social justice movements that are making real impacts like Black Lives Matter, the American Gay Rights Movement, or 350.org.
Budweiser’s message: Soft beer is for people with digestive difficulties, people who are afraid to swallow what’s best for the country. If you drink Budweiser, you are a “real” U.S. citizen who doesn’t question policies that treat corporations as individuals, who accepts violence as a way of U.S. life, and who accepts the contradiction that our nation of immigrants now is trying to stop immigration. If you drink Budweiser, you are a rugged individualist, and you deserve to be a U.S citizen. You’re “hard:” unmoving, unchangeable, and undeterred, whether it’s actually good for you as an individual or the world as a whole, or not.
Oppositional reading: What is rugged individualism, anyway? Isn’t being hard, or tough, really a euphemism for physical power and strength over smaller scale size or intellectualism? It relegates critical thinkers and consensus-builders to the outside and prevents an interwoven society. Instead, we should support people who stand up and speak out when Morris Dees is threatened for his justice-for-all work at the Southern Poverty Law Center. Don’t let corporations like Budweiser make membership in the Sierra Club or the Nature Conservancy seem silly or trite. And please don’t give corporations any leeway at all to diminish the work of the Paris climate conference (COP21) in which 195 countries adopted the first-ever universal, legally binding global climate deal.
Budweiser’s message: Budweiser is a U.S. corporation, and we’re proud of it. We’re proud that our lobbyists have protected us legally from intrusions from smaller breweries. Sure, we do have Brazilian and Belgian ownership and a corporate headquarters in Leuven, Belgium. But ignore our hard-to-understand business model and, instead, teach your children about the wonder of the Clydesdales so they’ll think fondly of Budweiser when they grow up.
Oppositional reading: We live in a global community, and we know that corporations are using every loophole to produce products abroad due to lack of unions and low, low labor costs outside the U.S. If we see people from other countries as something to fear, it will reroute our curiosity about why corporations aren’t doing more to employ U.S. workers in their factories. Let others know how proud you are of small, locally-grown businesses like Turfscape, Blue Moon Box, Green Badger, Prudential Overall Supply — and so many, many others — who, in fact, are the ones who have U.S. interests in mind and at heart. Now that would be scary for U.S. corporations.
NOT A FRUIT CUP
Budweiser’s message: Fruity beer, which can be popular in many craft beer houses and barns, isn’t real beer. Even when Budweiser has flavors like Bud Light Lime or Bud Light Apple, one needn’t worry: there’s no actual actual fruit in either.
Oppositional reading: People who actually eat fruit — and vegetables and locally grown products– spend time thinking about health, sustainability, the environment, and the future of the world. These people, according to Budweiser, are not part of the mainstream and should be disregarded as anyone you’d want as a colleague or friend.
Budweiser’s message: The Golden Years were a time when life was good, home and job were secure, and communities were stable, if strident.
Oppositional reading: The idea of Golden Years in the U.S. is a myth, something that never really happened. If anyone feels that there was a time in U.S. history with more opportunity or freedom, he’s probably a white male who experienced privilege. Today, we embrace all kinds of people in the U.S., which includes people whose birth excluded them from the male, white, Protestant, heterosexual domain. Think Solar Sister, Women in Wind Energy, CODE2040, Hip Hop Caucus, and others.
NOT FOR EVERYONE
Budweiser’s message: Budweiser is comparing its market share 10 years ago of 14.4% to today’s U.S. market share, which is 7.5%. To counter this trend, Budweiser now describes its product as for an elite clientele.
Oppositional reading: More and more people are finding their voices and rising up against corporations like Budweiser. The #NotBackingDown hashtag is resonant of the Trump campaign, too, isn’t it? He refuses to accept any decision for the presidential election unless it’s his win, his people, his ego. Budweiser recognizes it may become exclusive to segments of the society who can relate to a “Make America Great Again” slogan. No, it’s definitely not for everyone: not the beer and not the embedded messages.
But, hopefully, you really do reject such narrow-mindedness; you embrace a global community. You are more attuned, for example, to the message within the documentary, Before the Flood, in which you can join a growing movement of people mobilizing to protect our communities from climate change. Visit the Fight The Flood action center and learn how you can make a difference today to continue to resist hegemony in our society. Don’t let the Budweisers and other corporate interests dictate the discourse about our society and world.