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The Bud Light Brew-haha is the Latest Example of a Company "Gone Woke"
Consumers are finally beginning to push back against campaigns that advance political and social agendas rather than sell products.
The past two months have not been kind to Bud Light. One look at the brand’s social media presence tells you everything you need to know about the onslaught the company faces. Ever since the ill-fated decision to feature trans minstrel Dylan Mulvaney on a beer can, Bud Light has tweeted once (an April 14th “TGIF” message on which it was absolutely roasted in the comments section), while on Instagram it’s been forced to block all page comments.
To recap: Bud Light sends a few commemorative tall boys of its now hated piss water to Dylan Mulvaney, a manic, flamboyantly repulsive theater-kid extraordinare whose shtick is to prance around like a hormonal teenage girl and make a mockery of womanhood—a decision apparently undertaken with the same level of whimsy with which the Japanese Navy bombed Pearl Harbor. Mulvaney films a social media ad of himself in a sudsy bathtub positively swooning over the beer cans. The traditional blue collar Bud Light demographic turns away from the brand en masse, no different than the way the Starbucks demographic would have a collective epileptic conniption fit if Trump were featured in an ad for its newest over-priced, over-roasted, sugar-infused confection. A video surfaces that features Bud Light’s now former vice president of marketing (not exactly the most candescent star in the intellectual Orion despite her Ivy League credentials, I might add) suggesting that the brand’s customer base is “too fratty” and that the company is looking to be more “inclusive” so as to bolster its progressive bona fides.1 Even more traditional consumers defect. The company makes a series of knee-jerk moves to quell the outrage that quickly prove futile. Pro-trans spazzes spaz out, posting on social media and penning op-eds about the insidiousness of heteronormativity in a patriarchal society (etc. etc.) and claiming that Bud Light has turned its back on the LGBTQ+ community by “pandering to transphobes.” All in all a magnificent disaster.
Bud Light is now flailing.2 Sales have continued to decline week-on-week with $19 billion wiped off the value of Anheuser-Busch3 since the beginning of April. The company is offering generous rebates that in some cases amount to free beer, while rebates have already been offered by individual vendors looking to rid themselves of the accursed beverage, with one purportedly going as far as to slap a $20 rebate on a $19.98 case of 24 beers.
Common sense would seem to suggest that companies would be wise not to push political views alongside their goods. But in the immortal words of Voltaire, “Common sense is not so common.” Rather than concentrating on what they know best and staying neutral in the culture wars, many companies have staked their brands out on one side of a contentious political divide. Over the past few years especially, major U.S. corporations have felt the need to wade into the fray, weighing in on everything from abortion and Black Lives Matter to election laws, ignoring the chasm between their sermonizing and the scant public support for it. A 2021 report by the Brunswick Group found that 63% of corporate executives felt “unequivocally” that companies should speak out on social issues, while only 36% of Americans agree.
The thing that’s interesting about the Bud Light episode is that, though the intense backlash might suggest otherwise, this is far from the only time a company has “gone woke.” Stakeholder capitalism — the trendy idea that companies should serve not just their shareholders but also other interests and society at large — has been crowned as the governing philosophy for big business in America. We have seen examples of this time and again.
Hershey’s decided to celebrate Women’s History Month by putting a picture of a transgender woman — a biological male — on the front wrapper of its candy bar.
Well-respected companies like Coca-Cola and LinkedIn have implemented corporate programs teaching employees “to be less white,” which apparently means “to be less oppressive, be less arrogant, be less certain, be less defensive, be more humble”; and that “white people are socialized to feel that they are inherently superior because they are white.”
Last week, Adidas launched its “Pride 2023” swimwear collection, advertising bathing suits on its web site under the “women’s” section by showing a man wearing one.
Gillette ran an ad depicting a father teaching his trans son (biological daughter) how to shave a beard.
Starbucks has mandated “anti-bias training” for executives and tied their compensation to increasing minority representation in its workforce.
Airbnb sent clients an “activism and allyship guide” that urged them to participate in “acts of solidarity” like wearing hoodies and buying Skittles in honor of Trayvon Martin.
Disney has pledged to embed radical sexual politics in its children’s programming, regularly “adding queerness” into content, eliminating “gendered greetings” at parks, and giving old characters progressive makeovers.
Jack Daniel’s recently filmed an entire series of video-length, movie-quality promotional ads for Tennessee corn whiskey using the most flamboyant drag queens from RuPaul’s Drag Race.
You get the point. The Bud Light brouhaha might be the most backlash a company has ever received for aligning itself with toxic progressivism, but now Target is reaping the whirlwind after sowing the wind as well. The “cheap chic” discount retailer has shed billions off its market cap after being boycotted for selling “tuck-friendly” swimwear for children and hiring a transgender artist famous for his Satan-loving products to create the line of clothing.4
It’s easy enough to see that Bud Light and Target have become the unenviable vehicles for consumers to show that they’re tired of what they see as heavy-handed virtue signaling and the unnecessary endorsement of causes and social agendas. People are fed up. You can hardly blame them. Bud Light’s decision to feature the misogynistic mug of a prancing pony on its beer can and Target’s perverse desire to market “trans-friendly” swimwear to children serve as the latest confirmation of the blue-collar suspicion that liberalism is no longer organized around working-class economic interests, further encouraging conservatives in their feeling of cultural besiegement and the sense that all major institutions of American life are arrayed against their mores and values and traditions. The resulting boycotts are backlash against a new trend of self-interest masquerading as morality and an increasingly pervasive corporate-backed liberal politics that seems indifferent to the working man during a time of ascendant cultural liberalism.
But why do executives feel the need to genuflect before woke causes?
Well, first and foremost because in modern America they’re incentivized to. Call it Wokenomics. At stake are Corporate Equality Index (CEI) points, “an all-important social credit score that has the power to make or break companies.” Overseen by the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest LGBTQ+ political lobbying group in the world, the CEI is a lesser-known part of the burgeoning ESG (Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance) “ethical investing” movement increasingly pushed by the country’s top three investment firms. HRC, which has received millions from George Soros’ Open Society Foundation among others, issues report cards for America’s biggest corporations via the CEI: awarding or subtracting points for how well companies adhere to what HRC calls its “rating criteria.” The main categories are: “Workforce Protections,” “Inclusive Benefits,” “Supporting an Inclusive Culture,” “Corporate Social Responsibility,” and “Responsible Citizenship.”
A company can lose CEI points if it doesn’t fulfill HRC’s demand for “integration of intersectionality in professional development, skills-based or other training,” or if it doesn’t use a “supplier diversity program with demonstrated effort to include certified LGBTQ+ suppliers.” This highly subjective political score obviously introduces an incentive structure outside the bounds of business, often in ways contradictory to fiduciary duty.5
But many companies also use progressive-friendly values to deflect attention from their monolithic pursuit of profit and power and avoid scrutiny of their practices that are, in fact, harmful to minorities or the environment,6 while simultaneously tricking consumers with the illusion that by engaging in normal acts of consumption they’re fulfilling social obligations. As Ross Douthat has highlighted, some companies preemptively offer liberalism and the activist left a certain kind of virtue-signaling on progressive social causes, a certain degree of performative wokeness, in the hopes that having corporate America take their side in the culture wars will deter efforts to tax or regulate new monopolies too heavily. And for those business leaders afflicted with an inferiority complex over their chosen profession and who feel the need to “buy back” their moral standing in the world, all that need be done is offer up a DEI initiative or two, sprinkle in a few of the Left’s favorite buzzwords, and toss some incense to anti-racism for good measure, and everything’s just fine and dandy.
But there’s another aspect to this, another reason why people like Bud Light’s former VP of marketing feel the need to purchase indulgences from the Church of Woke. Political scientist Wilfred Reilly points out that the great Thomas Sowell touched upon it in his classic book, The Vision of the Anointed.
Many members of the Western ruling class — including academics, pols, pundits and journalists, senior business executives, and other elites — not only dislike the people they’re expected to lead, but possess no theory of mind that might put them in the latter’s shoes. These wannabe lieges make up a surprisingly homogeneous crowd: upper-middle or upper-class, from the Blue coastal bastions or other large cities, educated at Ivy-on-down universities, and fluent in progressive-speak bullshit. Basically the sort of people who view not getting your kid into the right college as cause for seppuku.
Using quite a bit of empirical data, Sowell claims that these elite types tend to see other Americans not as equals or even fellow countrymen so much as “the benighted”—the “deplorables,” the “bitter clingers” of guns and religion that hail from that dominion of depravity known as “flyover country.” Within this Anointed/Benighted paradigm, the goal of the Anointed isn’t to engage in honest, good-willed discourse but to teach the Benighted what the new truth is in an effort to broaden and purify their parochial little minds. I submit that this dynamic is easily identifiable in the Bud Light brouhaha—the executive responsible for the Mulvaney spot claimed that the brand had been “in decline for a really long time” (despite it being America’s number one brew with a market share of more than 13%) because of a core customer base accustomed to “fratty, kind of out of touch humor” that was sorely lacking in the “inclusivity” department.
Why, in the grand scheme of things, is any of this a problem?
Because wokeness is a problem. It’s an ideology bound up with the growth of government and the dismantling of norms and institutions grounded in historically liberal principles like equality under the law, due process, and free speech.
And now that corporations are falling in line, wokeness is being propagated with the full force of modern capitalism behind it. As woke companies attach themselves to government agencies and programs, partnerships are being forged that benefit an elite few, with the resultant quasi-public apparatus weaponized against private individuals holding views that are inconsistent with various social justice initiatives, folks who are then indicted as racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic, and what have you.
Perhaps most importantly, corporate wokeness is concentrating the power to determine American values in the hands of a small group of capitalists rather than in the hands of the public, quietly wreaking havoc on democracy by supporting Leftist identity politics that supplant our deeper shared commonalities as Americans and exacerbating rather than abating social unrest and division.
Sure, the idea that corporations should do more than just make products and provide services for profit, that they should also advance other social and cultural issues, sounds rather benign. But this demands that we blur the lines between capitalism and democracy, our two most fundamental institutions. And it demands that companies throw their weight behind the moral questions that America is supposed to adjudicate through democracy, giving capitalist leaders and corporate chieftains an outsized role in the process—people who are very good at pretending to care about more than profit and power, precisely to gain more of each.
As Republican presidential candidate and long-time entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy has gone to great pains to emphasize, “Our prosperity and individual freedom depend on the integrity of capitalism. Our unity and political freedoms depend on the integrity of democracy. With the birth of woke capitalism, we lose both and are left with neither.”
Luckily, the general public is beginning to understand they have more power in this country as capitalist consumers than as voters, and that the people who’re really running America have never had their name on a ballot.
The diversity, equity, inclusion triad is such a farce. “Diversity” means people who look different but all think the same thing; “equity” means equal outcomes achieved by government force; and “inclusion” means prioritizing and protecting groups that progressives like.
What’s funny is that I have a master’s in Strategic Public Relations from the University of Southern California (by no means does this make me special; I merely mention it because it’s relevant), and I can say with confidence that this Bud Light fiasco will go down as arguably the foremost case study in how not to handle a PR crisis.
A corporation that’s actively trying to replace its white male employees, by the way.
Target has long been a woke company. It provides annual donations to GLSEN, which calls for gender ideology to be integrated into all K-12 classes, even math.
For example, because Anheuser-Busch (presumably) used Dylan Mulvaney to chase higher CEI ratings for “inclusivity,” the stockholders to whom the company is obligated are now suffering a financial penalty.
I.e., Nike uses social justice campaigns led by people like the odious prima donna Colin Kaepernick (whom I would gladly pay good money to punch in the face) to distract from the fact that the company uses sweatshops and child labor to produce shoes marked up at $200 that are then heavily marketed to poor inner-city black kids.