The chief executive of Anheuser-Busch InBev has blamed misinformation on social media for stoking a conservative consumer boycott of Bud Light after the best-selling US beer was promoted by a transgender influencer.
Bud Light has become the target of a fierce backlash since Dylan Mulvaney posted a video last month on Instagram, where she has 1.8mn followers, featuring a custom-made beer can provided by the brewery that was emblazoned with an image of her face.
The rightwing boycott has led sales volumes of the beer to drop by a quarter, while two Bud Light executives have taken leaves of absence.
“People often talk about this topic in social media like noise,” chief executive Michel Doukeris told the Financial Times. “You have one fact and every person puts an opinion behind the fact. And then the opinions start to be replicated fast on each and every comment. By the time that 10 or 20 people put a comment out there, the reality is no longer what the fact is, but is more [about] what the comments were.”
The comments from Doukeris, whose company also owns beer brands from Stella Artois to Corona, underscores the challenge faced by consumer goods companies over perceived association with contentious social issues.
Alissa Heinerscheid, Bud Light’s vice-president of marketing and one of the pair now on leave, had previously described the brand’s traditional marketing as having “fratty, kind of out-of-touch humour” and vowed to update it with “a campaign that’s truly inclusive”.
Doukeris said “misinformation and confusion” circulating online include Mulvaney’s can being understood as “a production can and every can would be like the one that was in that post . . . We never intended to make it for general production and sale for the public.”
Others, he said, thought it was a Bud Light campaign while “it was not: it was one post. It was not an advertisement.”
He complained that there were even videos of billboards with images of the Bud Light can inserted “electronically” and “10mn people [were] watching it and commenting . . . That had nothing to do with Bud Light, it was just like pure social media creation.”
The firestorm is hitting sales, which were already suffering a long-term decline. Bud Light sales volumes during the week to April 22, the most recent industry data available, dropped 26 per cent from a year ago, according to an analysis by Bump Williams Consulting based on Nielsen IQ data.
Doukeris said in an earnings call on Thursday that the brand’s slide in US sales in the first three weeks of April accounted for 1 per cent of the brewer’s global volumes, but refrained from commenting on its impact for the full year, saying it was “too early to have a full view”.
AB InBev’s first-quarter profits rose almost 14 per cent against a year earlier, beating analysts’ expectations amid sustained demand even after price increases. The group cited “a healthy combination of volume and price” as it maintained its medium-term profit growth outlook of 4 to 8 per cent.
“It looks like the worst has passed in terms of the fall in volumes,” said Simon Hales, analyst at Citi. “The question now is how quickly we can see some return to normality, or at least some improvements in that relative rate of decline.”