Budweiser has a Clydesdale conundrum
Plus a quick Super Bowl post-mortem on those super-sucky alco-mmercials!
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To celebrate the 90th anniversary of its iconic Clydesdales this year, Budweiser is refreshing a mural of the gargantuan animals on the wall of its St. Louis brewery. And for part of this month, that project will compete for attention with a mobile billboard truck driving around the plant to tell visitors and residents alike that parent company Anheuser-Busch InBev “mutilates” the animals with a controversial, painful procedure illegal in 10 states. Yikes!
I wrote a bit about this on Saturday, but I wanted to follow up on it again here because I think it’s a good example of how Budweiser’s reliance on its heritage is just flat-out unsustainable at this point. The “mutilat[ion]” claims come courtesy of the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, which released a report last week about the grooming practices at Warm Springs Ranch, the Missouri farm where Anheuser-Busch (and later, ABI) has bred Clydesdales for more than 50 years. PETA’s undercover investigators visited the farm and got a couple staffers1 on camera confirming that the company amputates a portion of the colts’ tailbones. The process, known as “tail-docking,” is “brutal,” and often done to draft horses for aesthetic reasons, according to a 2018 report in Scientific American by the roboticist and animal-movement expert Dr. David Hu. In addition to causing the animal pain in the moment, Hu wrote, it robs Clydesdales of “their main line of defense against biting insects.” PETA goes several steps further in its report (which is titled, somewhat confusingly, “TAILGATE!”), citing longtime equine veterinarian Sid Gustafson’s testimony that docking “results in a lifetime of impaired balance moving at speed running and turning,” and quoting him at length to debunk one Clydesdale staffer’s claims that ABI docked the colts’ tails for hygienic and safety reasons, rather than cosmetic ones.
The organization is calling for a boycott on Budweiser until ABI stops tail-docking, and has purchased billboards in St. Louis to counterprogram the company’s fête of the first Clydesdale team, which was hitched in 1933 to mark the end of Prohibition. PETA also told me Monday that because of its pressure campaign, the company had canceled a “Football & Foals” Super Bowl watch party at Warm Springs Ranch Sunday, which upon a quick glance at the farm’s social channels, appears to track:
Seems bad! Even worse, ABI has done very little to respond to PETA’s allegations, and has not to my knowledge denied them. Through a spokesperson Monday, ABI provided a brief, vague statement2 that said the company’s “professional caretakers… partner[s] with an equine medical expert to ensure our animals receive the highest level and quality of care.” The company declined to address my specific questions about PETA’s report or the credentials or identity of its “equine medical professional.”
Not to minimize the alleged animal cruelty here (which, if true, is awful and ABI should stop doing it!), but this little episode also demonstrates just how stuck the macrobrewer is when it comes to Budweiser. Sales of the King of Beers peaked decades ago, and as drinkers in the influential United States market have looked elsewhere—to light beer, then imports, then craft beer, then flavored malt beverages—the brand has struggled to find a lane. Even though Americans aren’t drinking Bud Heavy like they used to, ABI has continued to position the brand as a cultural standard-bearer of a mainstream, middle-of-the-road, and mostly bygone Americanness.
Which kinda-sorta worked on a vibes basis, for a while at least. As much as the brand’s craft beer counterpunch in the 2015 Super Bowl felt like punching down to small brewers and their acolytes, it probably sounded like a lion’s roar to people who use “hipster” interchangeably with “people under 40 who don’t listen to Top 40.” For most of the past decade, ABI has also cashed in on jingoistic summer rebrands, betting (correctly) that most drinkers wouldn’t clock the irony of a Budweiser labeled “America” sold by a foreign conglomerate.
The Clydesdales, as a reliable source of nostalgia, gravitas, and goodwill for the former flagship, have been key to this bona fides-burnishing effort, showing up in canonical ads (e.g., Bud’s 9/11 homages) and generally standing in as ginormous mascots for a Pax Americana vision of the United States that still resonates with boomers and Fox News viewers (to the extent that they’re different, amirite?!) This hasn’t really helped sales, though, and it’s delivering diminishing returns in vibes, too. A 2022 brand-loyalty report from marketing firm Brand Keys found Budweiser amongst the biggest losers “when it comes to loyalty in the post-pandemic marketplace.” Ah.
PETA’s investigation highlights another problem with the legacy approach. It’s a rare U.S. institution that remains beyond reproach for nine decades, and at some point, even the most sterling of symbols sustains a black mark or two. (Just ask Trudy Busch Valentine!) I doubt the company will even bother to change its practices at Warm Springs after this report3, but after the backlash dies down and the mobile billboard leaves, Budweiser will still face the same conundrum it’s been grappling with for over a decade. The Clydesdales can’t pull the beer cart any more, and ABI doesn’t have much in the stable to replace them.
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📉 Those Super Bowl alco-mmercials super-sucked
Super Bowl 57 was the first in my lifetime that featured not only advertisements from multiple beer companies, but multiple categories of alcohol entirely. And they were, on balance, pretty mediocre! Not that I had high hopes or anything, but… man, was I underwhelmed. Then again, taste is a matter of taste, and beyond the (pay)walled garden of this here boozeletter, the preferences that matter most aren’t mine, but those of the American drinking public’s rank-and-file guzzlers, so [touches earpiece, listens intently, frowns] Uh-huh… I see… Folks, I’m now learning that they thought Big Alcohol’s big-dollar ads sucked shit, too.