Anheuser-Busch, the maker of Bud Light beer, offered an apology this week in response to complaints that its “Up For Whatever” advertising campaign condoned date rape by telling consumers they ought to stop using the word “no.”
The ad campaign included a label on some bottles that featured the slogan, “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.” The tagline drew outrage after photos of the label went viral on social media on Tuesday. Critics charged that, blind to the problem of sexual assault on U.S. college campuses, the beer maker was implicitly encouraging people to get intoxicated to the point where they are unable to give consent to sex.
Anheuser-Busch, for its part, said that it would immediately cease production of the labels. The company added that the two-year-old “Up for Whatever” campaign was meant for “consumers to engage with our brand in a positive and light-hearted way.”
“It’s clear that this particular message missed the mark, and we regret it,” Bud Light vice president Alexander Lambrecht said in a release. “We would never condone disrespectful or irresponsible behavior.
Bud Light, however, came under fire in March for the same ad campaign, after it sent a tweet directed at St. Patricks’ Day revelers urging them to "pinch people who aren’t #UpForWhatever." When critics complained that the tweet called for touching people without their consent, the company deleted it, but said it was meant to be “playful.”
The Bud Light controversy is the latest in several alcohol-related ad campaigns that have depicted women in questionable light.
In 2012, the vodka maker Belvedere ran an online advertisement depicting a smiling man with his arms around a woman who looks terrified as she tries to wriggle herself out of his grasp. The kicker was the ad’s slogan, which, according to Jezebel, read: “Unlike some people, Belvedere always goes down smoothly.”
After Internet users expressed outrage, the company swiftly pulled the ad, but the actress sued Belvedere, accusing the company of misappropriating her image, which she said was a screen grab from her sketch comedy video.
Other ads have fallen flat by using racial stereotypes. In 2004, Labatt U.S.A., the U.S. distributor of Tecate beer, took down billboards that featured a bottle of the Mexican beer along with the slogan, “Finally, a cold Latina,” after advocacy groups complained.
Other beer companies have attempted to use humor to imply that a product will help consumers win the affections of the opposite sex. Molson, a Canadian beer company that later merged with Coors, drew criticism in 2004 for its "Making Friends" ads that ran in men’s magazines like "Maxim" and "Stuff" featuring faux wallet photos of grandparents and pets that men were supposed to show to women to get them into bed. “Wallet-size proof that you’re a man with a sensitive side, in case she’s into that,” the slogan read.
Other ads in the Molson campaign featured artificial business cards from yacht sellers and other luxurious-sounding stores, along with the tagline, “Ladies freak for guys with expensive hobbies, and now you’ve got some,” according to AdAge.
Michelle Nelson, an advertising professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has researched gender targeting in ads, says she wonders whether companies aren’t rushing to air ads that should be more carefully vetted.
“The research has said that sexual appeals, anything with sexual innuendo, whether it’s blatant or subtle, do get attention,” she said. “Unfortunately it’s not always so positive for the companies that made them. If they had just run it by one focus group, I suspect someone would have said, ‘Hey, this is wrong.’”
Other experts say that companies are aware that they are using inflammatory or offensive slogans, but are doing it to get attention.
“The truth is, the alcohol industry has been advertising alcohol for decades as a way to seduce women, with or without their consent,” said Jean Kilbourne, a longtime scholar on the depiction of women in alcohol and tobacco ads and creator of the documentary film series “Killing Us Softly: Advertising’s Image of Women.”
To those who object to taglines that hint at sexual objectification — some more blatantly than others — Kilbourne says the advertisers use the excuse that they were meant to be jokes.
“But I think we’re certainly at the point where we recognize that rape jokes aren’t funny,” she said.
These types of ads still are aired, Kilbourne said, because they work with their target audience — namely, the young men who will be drinking beers like Bud Light.
“The people who protest are portrayed as people who are prudes and have no sense of humor and no sense of fun and aren’t ‘up for anything,’” she said, quoting Bud Light’s ad campaign, “which makes it all the more appealing for the target audience.”