Bud Drops Back, But Super Bowl Offers No Safety

The field for the NFL title game was dry, yet surprisingly slick in a way that threatened injury.

a heineken zero bottle being carried by ants with the words in big red letters, "ANT TRAP"And so was Heineken.

The international beer giant ran an ad for Heineken 0.0, a non-alcoholic version of their signature green-bottled brew. That in itself was unsurprising. The rising popularity of Dry January, the growing recognition of the accumulative harms of drinking day in and day out and the surge of nonalcoholic bars and cocktails has sent a message that Heineken has received—and its rivals may be slow to accept.

Or perhaps not. Anheuser-Busch, the American face of megaproducer AB InBev, relinquished its exclusive beer sponsorship of the Super Bowl for the first time in 30 years. This backing down from the primacy of a beer-and-football Sunday may suggest the brewer is keeping a lower profile and recuperating from the PR nightmare arising from its soccer World Cup sponsorship.

Or it could suggest something more, an anticipation of lean times ahead as soaring alcohol-related mortality in the United States and other developed countries brings a sense of unease to consumers.

Into that gap step some unusual players. Although distilled spirits companies have been advertising on TV since the industry’s self-imposed ban lifted in 1996 (a testament to the effectiveness of self-regulation), they have remained rarer than those of beer companies. This year, Diageo’s Crown Royal and cognac producer Remy Martin moved onto the big stage. (Both were celebrity-led spots, a concern for youth targeting, although Alcohol Justice was relieved to find the Remy Martin campaign bafflingly incoherent. We still strongly prefer alcohol companies eschew sports advertising entirely, but when they inevitably do engage, making an overtly bad ad comes as a bit of a relief.)

Despite relinquishing its expensive exclusivity, AB InBev did run ads for Bud Light and Michelob Ultra. The Bud Light campaign was the more subtly dangerous of the two, showing Top Gun star Miles Teller and his wife drinking at home while on hold. The Michelob Ultra placement, on the other hand, came in a Caddyshack spoof that a) wasn’t particularly funny, and b) dodderingly continued the push for Michelob as a “healthy” beer and somehow conducive to athletics. The concern with the former comes from its continuation of an ongoing advertising trend showing people drinking at home when there is nothing else going on, combatting a fear of “party drinking” and the more sedentary post-lockdown lifestyle with an attempted normalization of drinking just because one is bored. For the latter, well, the only way a beer could be helpful for exercise and health is if it contained no alcohol.

And so we get to Heineken. It has no alcohol. It can be drunk at home. Most worrisome, it’s something you can give to your kids, errr, ants.

The ad features actor Paul Rudd as the superhero Ant-Man, coming back from a mission to a shared lab. The lab is festooned with notes telling him to stop overconsuming (a trivializing drink-and-drive pun), and warning him not to give alcohol to the ants, even if they ask him.

“Not a problem,” he says, then pops the top off of a non-alcoholic Heineken 0.0. He waves it in front of the ants. They chitter excitedly, and walk off with a bottle.

The problem, of course, is that the ants’ behavior is that of children. The idea behind this ad is that one can ignore the nagging not to give alcohol to kids, and just give them a Heineken 0.0. And while consuming a nonalcoholic beer is not dangerous in isolation, kids pick up on behaviors from their parents. So if a parent makes like Ant-Man—and what dad does not want to be a cool, laid-back, Paul Rudd-style father?—it in turn leads to kids becoming used to the taste of beer, used to cajoling alcohol from older adults, and reflexively reaching for that signature green Heineken bottle.

To put it more simply, research suggests if a parent simply does not drink near their kids, the kids will be less inclined to seek out alcohol.

But early adoption of drinking patterns is essential to the alcohol industry, with people who begin drinking younger being more likely to develop alcohol problems as they age. This is not a new gimmick. We know that the tobacco industry collaborated with the manufacturers of candy cigarettes to create packaging which put kids in mind of real brands, and that consuming these (now banned from shelves) candies led to a greater chance of becoming a smoker.

That’s why, despite the lack of alcohol being overtly advertised in this particular ad, Alcohol Justice has serious concerns with Heineken putting out an ad that a) featured a youth-friendly superhero spokesperson; b) featured a casual, typically father-children relationship; c) promoted non-alcoholic beer to those too young to drink; d) did so at an event with an estimated 17 million underage viewers; and e) continued to burn the Heineken beer brand into their developing brains.

So long as these companies’ lifeblood comes from alcohol sales, they cannot be trusted to advertise in youth-friendly contexts. Despite Budweiser’s retreat, the call remains: we need to Free Our Sports. We need to bury alcohol industry advertising once and for all.

Then cover it up with unpainted sod that actually holds a cleat.

READ MORE about the campaign to Free Our Sports.

READ MORE about Heineken’s efforts to co-opt Dry January.