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Budweiser Ad Sinks

Once separated by an ocean, thousands of miles of empty sky, and a violent war, two lovers embrace, their separated souls at long last rejoined. The man wears a military combat uniform, and the woman’s ethereal voice sounds blissfully joyous. A couple reunites, overflowing with happiness in an (empty?) airport, what could be better? What if I was to tell you that it was all caught on camera? Would that be something you might be interested in? Pardon the Entourage reference, but wouldn’t you know it, it IS all caught on camera! Looks like Anheuser-Busch is up to its old tricks again. Another branding ploy, a marketing machination that leases, nay steals, emotional equity from the military to sell a product and make a buck. What do actual veterans get in return? What should they get? We’ll get to that. On Super Bowl Sunday, Budweiser aired a 60 second documentary-style spot, “A Hero’s Welcome,” that followed Lt. Chuck Nadd as he returned home from a tour in Afghanistan, recording the reunion with his girlfriend and a parade in his honor in his hometown of Winter Park, Florida.

 

 

To form your own opinion on this commercial, it’s important to consider the company’s intent. How does one measure the success of a commercial? In leads generation and sales conversion? In laughs and smiles? In tears shed? In daylights, in sunsets, in midnights, in cups of coffee? The answer, of course, depends on the message behind the ad and the objective of broadcasting that message to the public. Without a shadow of a doubt, this ad elicited the response that was intended. It was emotional. It was heartwarming and happy. It was visceral in its simplicity; every word unscripted, every emotion raw. No one in the ad drank Budweiser. Perhaps the company learned its lesson from this 2011 spot, which shamelessly put the beer front, center, and everywhere in between.

 

 

By the way, given the rate of alcoholism in veterans (12% of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan report post-combat alcohol abuse), doesn’t it seem questionable that he’s greeted with a party soaked with Budweiser? The 2011 ad was a misfire, but they actually had a more successful one back in 2007 (are you sensing a theme here?) with this heartfelt standing ovation in an airport for troops returning home. Yes, it was set up – why did AB have cameras there if it wasn’t? But who cares, it was nice and it truly encouraged each and every viewer to recognize members of the military in any way they can.

 

 

Let’s get back to “A Hero’s Welcome.” If the imagery wasn’t enough, Skylar Grey’s beautiful melody then soars in: “I’m coming home, I’m coming home, Tell the world I’m coming home, Let the rain wash away, All the pain of yesterday.” Someone at your Super Bowl party probably calls for the room to be silent. Goosebumps cover our arms, our throats get lumpy, tears slide down our cheeks. We’re not even thinking about Budweiser. We look for a call to action – something that encourages us to donate to military charities, to give a veteran a ride to the grocery store, to help welcome a soldier back home who isn’t Lt. Nadd. But all we get is the Bud logo and “#Salute a Hero.” What is that? Am I supposed to find a veteran on Twitter and write “Thank you for your service. #Salute a Hero”? Honestly, WHY is that hashtagged? And WHAT is the call to action? To use Twitter? That is an empty gesture, a black hole of saccharine altruism.

The commercial, and most of its particular genre of ethos, are masterful works of illusion; specious misdirection that would make David Copperfield jealous (or proud?) – capitalism neatly and effortlessly packaged as patriotism. Distaste for this commercial is not unpatriotic. The distaste arises from an uncomfortable feeling that I get when I watch the ad – it feels at once exploitative, contrived, and worse still, selfish. It’s the worst kind of exploitation because it’s disguised as support, cloaked in an American flag and thus shielded from criticism.

The text in the commercial reads, “Every soldier deserves a hero’s welcome.” So, what about those other troops? The ones that had no one to hug at the airport, who took a taxi home. The ones that came home to PTSD, flashbacks, depression, alcoholism and painkiller addiction. The ones who eventually return to civilian life and struggle to earn an income, possibly ending up as one of the 50,000 Iraq and Afghanistan veterans who are currently homeless or in programs aimed at keeping them off the streets. What is Budweiser doing to help them? Confused yet? Me too.

According to its website, Anheuser-Busch and its foundation have donated nearly $11 million dollars to military charities since…wait for it…wait…for…it…1987. Excuse me for a second while I make my shocked face. My rudimentary math skills tell me that that’s 27 years, and my calculator (cut me some slack) tells me that that’s a little less than $410,000 per year. If you’ve done any research into the astronomical cost of purchasing ad time during the Super Bowl, you would know that the company spent $8 million to air the 60 second commercial (more accounting for ad production). If you haven’t done that research, then refer to the last sentence, and as you do, contemplate the math.

It took them 60 seconds to spend the equivalent of 73% of their total donations to military charities ($11 million) from the last 27 YEARS! There’s simply no way that that is somehow a net positive for those military charities. Perhaps the military itself likes it. Young men watch football and like beer, and the military wants to recruit those football-watching, beer-drinking young men. In fact, a few military personnel at the Pentagon are in charge of green-lighting creative projects like this that may tangentially benefit them, and they do so with relative frequency (see: every other brand who has tried to link itself with the military in advertisements). So Budweiser wins, the military wins, the viewers win (a win-win-win is even better than a win-win I’m told). But I think it’s quite clear who the biggest loser here is – the same type of person that Lt. Nadd was supposed to represent – actual veterans. I’m not quite sure how to quantify how many veterans $8 million could have helped or what it could have done for them, but let’s try this exercise:

According to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development’s rough estimate, there are 58,000 veterans living on American streets on any given night. If Budweiser were to have split the cash equally among them, that would be $138 per homeless veteran in the ENTIRE country. If Budweiser could have even managed to create a 30 second spot, it could have donated $4 million to the military charities it claims to support. It could have just put the ad on YouTube and saved $8 million. Nearly 9 million people have chosen to watch the ad online so far. That’s far short of the 110 million that allegedly watched the Super Bowl, but once you discount the millions of people watching the game who didn’t watch the commercial, those 9 million people who sought it out and watched it organically on YouTube isn’t half bad.

It’s easier to see problems than it is to create solutions. So here’s my suggestion. Budweiser should have created an ad campaign called “#NoCommercial.” Create a 30 second ad online that stars multiple veterans. They alternately read from the following script:

Soldier 1 (white male): This year, Budweiser has chosen not to air an ad during the Super Bowl.

Soldier 2 (black female): When soldiers like me come back from war, we need more…

Soldier 3 (white female): We need more…

Soldier 4 (black male): We need more than a commercial.

Soldier 2: We need your support…

Soldier 3: Your gratitude…

Soldier 1: And your help.

Soldier 4: With the money that Budweiser saves this year…

Soldier 3: It will donate to organizations that support wounded veterans…

Soldier 2: Veterans that need mental health counseling…

Soldier 1: And veterans that need jobs and a place to call home.

Soldier 3: Go to Budweiser.com to find out more about how Budweiser will help me…

Soldier 2: Will help me…

Soldier 1: Will help me…

Soldier 4: Will help me…

Soldiers 1,2,3,4: Will help us.

Soldier 2: By having “No Commercial”

Outro screen: Budweiser Logo, #NoCommercial, @Budweiser, Budweiser.com

I mean, that took 2 minutes to write, and it’s better than most of the junk that’s out there today. That ad gets MILLIONS of views if Budweiser promotes it the right way. The campaign #NoCommercial alone would get Budweiser more positive brand exposure than it could have ever gotten with “A Hero’s Welcome.” Also, let’s make all Bud packaging in the country completely black for a month leading up to the big game. No logos. No color. Nothing except for some FDA-mandated language – “alcohol may be harmful to your health…pregnant women should not drink,” or whatever it is they require on the packaging. Then put #NoCommercial in big, bold, white lettering.

So congrats Bud, you spent $8+ million to make ONE hero get a hero’s welcome. How many other heroes did you forget about in the process? This Bud’s not for you.

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