In the Doghouse

In the Doghouse

Budweiser Pays for World Cup Workers' Graves

a beer bottle held up in front of a soccer gameThis November's World Cup tournament features an unusual wrinkle--attendees risk jail time for enjoying one of its most prominent sponsor's products. Because Qatar, the event's host country, follows Islamic prohibition against alcohol, anyone partaking of sponsor Budweiser's signature products risks up to six months in prison, according to the New York Daily News.

But as Big Alcohol has done time after time, Budweiser has wrenched Qatari law to fill its own pockets. The World Cup events will have "fan zones" set aside from alcohol consumption. This exemption is not new. Writing for Defector, Charles Pierce reminisces about the 1993 World Cup qualifiers in Qatar:
[Foreign contracting] required Qatar to make some allowance for the Americans who came to town to work the oilfields. ... In this case, as in so many others, expedience trumped religious doctrine.

And that plays into the real horror of Budweiser's engagement. Qatar's reliance on migrant labor for its construction projects is well-recognized. The enormous scope of the World Cup facility and attendant infrastructure may cost Qatar upwards of $220 billion. This far-reaching campaign has been underwritten in no small part by its sponsors, including Adidas, Coca-Cola... and Annheuser-Busch InBev, the owner of Budweiser.

That money has gone into a development scheme that, according to Guardian estimates, cost 6,500 lives. According to an Amnesty International report, the businesses practices that Budweiser helped pay for have been egregious: South Asian laborers from Bangladesh, India, and Nepal asked to take on $500 to $4000 in debt for the "recruitment fees," then shipped to Qatar with the debt still standing. On arrival, the laborers' passports were confiscated.

The conditions of essentially indenture were just the beginning. Salaries were substantially less than promised. Payments were delayed. Residence permits were allowed to expire, making laborers at risk of jail if they leave the work camp. Living conditions are cramped--eight or more to a room--and work conditions dangerous; the Guardian reports that heat death was also a persistent risk for laborers.

Budweiser has been involved in World Cup sponsorship for over a decade. While the terms of their contract are not public, estimates have them paying between $130 and $325 million during the lead-up, with a data-mining-heavy ad campaign launched at the end of 2022. This steady involvement even as the details of tragedy mount has not gone unnoticed. In September, Human Rights Watch called for a sponsor pressure campaign towards the Qatari government. In a culture-jamming campaign aimed at the World Cup sponsors, an activist graphic designer augmented the Budweiser (the King of Beers) logo with the slogan "you can't be the kind without slaves."

AB InBev has acknowledged the situation in Qatar, agreeing to join Human Rights Watch's call for better compensation for migrant workers and issuing--at the very end of a March 2022 press release--a statement of support for the laborers. Yet, at the same time, they have not acknowledged the stories of widespread abuse and mortality detailed by Amnesty International and the Guardian. They did, however, launch an ambitious, multiplatform World Cup ad campaign themed--and no, we're not making this up--"The World Is Yours to Take."

Alcohol Justice has long raised the call to Free Our Sports. Yet this is an instance where the conjunction of sports, alcohol, and money lead to underwriting violations of human liberty that shock the conscience. In its ceaseless, remorseless campaign to get its product in front of sports fans (including underage ones) across the world, Budweiser has fed a brutal labor machine that will stain soccer for decades. There won't be a trace of red on Budweiser's balance sheets, though.

READ MORE about Free Our Sports.

READ MORE about AB InBev's cynicism in the face of tragedy.

I'd Like to Give the World a Drinking Problem

the old coca-cola slogan "coke adds life" edited to say "takes life"The realm of Big Alcohol just welcomed a friendly, red-and-white face. The Coca-Cola company, the second largest beverage company in the world, has been quietly rolling out a series of alcoholic beverages over the past three years, making it a sudden but formidable force in alcoholc sales. These new products—including alcoholic Simply "juice," alcoholic Topo Chico seltzer, and a spiked Fresca soda—all take cues from the worst trends in flavored malt beverage production. All three are cross-branded with familiar, non-alcoholic products. All three hide under the veneer of "healthy" alcohol. And all three are the kinds of flavor-masked products that frequently serve as the drink of choice for youth who still dislike the taste of alcohol.

The initial entry, back in 2020, was alcoholic Topo Chico. Nominally a seltzer produced in Monterrey, Mexico, the alcoholic version keeps the brand but takes the production back into the United States. Yet the branding remains: a New York Times article called out Coca-Cola's appeal to "perceived Mexicanness" in its promotion of the brand. While the dreary colonialism inherent in exoticizing an everyday Mexican brand is obvious, the potential to target Latinx communities may be even more threatening. Despite a history of drinking less than non-Latinx White U.S. residents, recent surges in alcohol use disorder are driven in part by a rapid increase in risky alcohol use in Latinx communities.

In the past year, Coca-Cola has branched out further. Fresca, a sugar-free soda often marketed as a "healthy" alternative to soda, is now being used to brand a cocktail-in-a-can. These kids of "ready to drink" cocktails combine often high ABV, strong flavor, and a packaging—a can—that suggests they should be consumed in one sitting. These are, for all intents and purposes, alcopops, and like alcopops, they draw more than their share of underage drinkers. And like Topo Chico, the Fresca brand is associated with health, and very specifically with being low-calorie. Unlike Topo Chico, however, Fresca has historically been targeted at women. So with alcoholic Fresca, Coca-Cola has managed to prime teen girls for both an alcohol use disorder and an eating disorder.

But why should the beverage behemoth stop with teens? Why not... juice? Among the many brands in its portfolio is Simply, a juice brand that is branded with the assertion that it is free of any additives besides juice. (This claim, while true, is deceptive, as very few juice brands currently on the market have anything other than juice, and prepackaged juice is, itself, a sugary beverage just like soda.) The same lemonade, then, that parents pour for their children will now be sold as a 24 oz. alcoholic tallboy. What a perfect procession to sear alcohol into developing minds: get them to recognize booze brands young, get them hooked when they're teens, and keep them drinking "healthy" "seltzers" when they start to worry about mortality.

The irony is, Coca-Cola faces little risk from brand dilution. Already, sugary beverages form the backbone of its $286 billion global empire. These beverages are complicit in a wide swath of health harms, including, according to Nature, "weight gain, ... type 2 diabetes mellitus, cardiovascular diseases and some cancers." Yet Coca-Cola has been nearly immune from regulation, going so far as to join with Anheuser-Busch InBev to threaten a budget-crippling ballot measure unless California blocked soda taxes. They have the economic strength and the political ruthlessness to push these new, alcoholic products into any hand they see. Based on the rapid expansion of their product lines, these are only the tip of an iceberg. If that spurs an anxious sensation of looming threat, well, Coca-Cola themselves have long urged customers to "Taste the Feeling."

READ MORE about the alcopop gateway to youth use.

READ MORE about the great "healthy drinking" hoax.


Dry January Makes Big Alcohol Pray for Rain

Tropical downpour CCBig Alcohol’s birds have come home to roost, and yet the industry is still determined to fry them up and sell them as sandwiches. Dry January, the social media-propagated health pledge* to steer clear of alcohol for the first month of the year, continues to grow, with 19% of American consumers participating in some way. While only half of those responding say their interest is to cut alcohol out entirely, this still threatens to be a substantial short-term hit to the industry bottom line.

So what can an industry do when the harms of its products are so self-evident that nearly a fifth of adults want to walk away from them entirely? Should it a) mock the entire effort; b) co-opt the entire effort; or c) flag-wave to make non-drinkers seem like enemies of America? Well, why not all three?

A. Mock

Pabst Blue Ribbon wasted no time in launching a campaign deriding Dry January. On January 3rd, they began a campaign by tweeting, “Not drinking this January? Try eating ---.”  (Alcohol Justice trusts its readership to intuit the omitted three-letter word.)

They also wasted no time in shuttering it when the response was split between PBR fans egging on the overamped belligerence, and normal Twitter users objecting to the tone and/or content. PBR management was quick to blame an “associate” and ostensibly distance themselves from the scandal, but not before the campaign had achieved trending status on the platform and generated plentiful news coverage.

We should emphasize the vagueness of PBR’s apology, which said simply that they were “handling the matter internally.” It is not clear that anyone faced reprimand, or that any third-party contracts terminated. In fact, it seems likely the “scandal” did what it was supposed to: raised public awareness of PBR as a brand.

The crude language and likely two-faced apology aside, the actual cruelty in this campaign comes through its effort to undercut people who are making efforts to change their drinking behavior. As much as we like to think recovery or cutting back is accomplished through sheer force of will, the one factor that ties every effective mode of behavior change together is community support. Having friends and peers recognize and support your efforts vastly improves your chances of success.

PBR recognized this. Behind their “edginess” was fear. They were desperate to make people considering engaging in Dry January feel like they were isolated, pathetic, and powerless. A chorus of macho, adolescent contempt from the echo chamber of social media could achieve just that. By leaning hard into a brief, well-publicized bout of schoolyard cruelty, they helped the company continue to gorge on its customers.

B. Co-Opt

As global alcohol brands saturate markets worldwide, bend legislators to their wills, and inundate every mass communications channel with images celebrating drinking, there comes a breaking point. Dry January is one of these breaking points, a wide-scale, mostly organic admission that most people feel like they are drinking more than they would like to. This puts Big Alcohol in a precarious position: how do you monetize a popular desire to not drink, while doing the utmost to keep customers drinking?

Heineken’s effort takes the form of “Try January.” This sweepstakes seeks to urge Dry January participants to sample Heineken NA, offering them a vacation package to Hawaii in exchange for acknowledging the brand. (No purchase necessary, by the way. We entered.)

This is largely less pernicious than PBR’s campaign. It acknowledges individuals’ agency in engaging in reducing or eliminating alcohol for a month. Yet it does so in an effort to make money from people seeking respite from the problems… the same company has caused. It even co-opts a catchy motto that originated from the public health community. The inherent cynicism in this attitude leaves a bad taste no cheap lager could wash away. But this campaign also contains more subtle undermining strategies.

In a broad sense, it seeks not just to enhance brand loyalty, but to create a confusion between Heineken NA and basic Heineken. The bottles are nearly identical, and the sense of customer good will from the contest will perpetuate after Dry January is over. (In fact, it is a good rule of thumb when dealing with alcohol companies that any contest, philanthropy, or giveaway has been planned with the assumption that it will generate more in profits than it costs in perks.)

But there is also the language of the contest itself. “Try January is here, and there's nothing dry about it,” the page declares. We here at Alcohol Justice could not figure out exactly what the “nothing dry about it” actually referred to. Was it the liquid from the bottle? The beaches in Hawaii? Was it somehow innuendo? The message was garbled, which seemed an improbable stumble for the marketing department of a multibillion dollar, global company.

Even more improbable when you bear in mind that Big Alcohol long ago successfully cracked the code for undermining public health messaging while seeming to promote it. Not only is Dry January co-opted as a marketing message, but the message tries to supplant it. It casts “dry” in a negative light, in stark contrast to the point of the Dry January campaign. Dry January is not an annual deep-dive into our potentials to feel better in our bodies—it’s a dorky, unfun trend. Think only of Try January, the generous, sunny celebration of a cheap, mass-market, usually alcoholic beverage brand.

We will still go to Hawaii if we win, though.

C. Flag-Wave

The New York Post’s clickbait editorial calling Dry January ‘pure evil’ is a bombastic appeal to drink in the name of… the economy. Aside from its contempt for “[t]emporary health nuts … turning beloved bars into wastelands at a moment in history in which there have never been more reasons to drink,” the evidence of financial impacts are tenuous at best. (For example, one Midtown bartender describes being devastated by the absence of formerly regular lunchtime customers. We cannot back this up with research data, but we suspect lunchtime bar patrons do not engage in Dry January.)

The article borders on parody, but the arguments of Big Alcohol’s useful idiots are seemingly parody-proof—a week before the Post, The Onion ran a satirical cartoon that used essentially the same arguments. InsideHook’s food and drink critic posted a simple and effective evisceration of the Post piece, saving us some typing.

But the Post, in its buffoonery, amplifies a legitimate concern facing the United States. For two years, the country has staked the economic security of the working class on alcohol sales. Massive deregulation swept through every state, short term expansions of the spaces where alcohol consumption is encouraged and the methods by which it can be provided, all in the names of the economic security of the service industry. Now many, if not most states, are trying to make these deregulations permanent.

It is no surprise, then, that for many—even those who have enjoyed the expanded bar footprints and to-go cocktails—this has created a lasting fatigue around the product. The whole organic nature of the Dry January movement reflects its participants’ intuitively understanding that constant alcohol consumption wears on the body and mind.

So congratulations to all those participating in Dry January. You have cut through a 500 billion dollar industry’s efforts to sneer at you, misdirect you, and cast you as the villain. Hopefully you feel a little better this month than you would have. Let’s do it again soon.

* Although Dry January started as an organized campaign by the United Kingdom-based nonprofit Alcohol Change, backed with apps and community building, it has grown internationally and a large number of those who don’t drink for the month, especially in the United States, both learn about it and commit to it via their own friend groups.

WATCH a video on the day-by-day benefits of cutting out booze.
READ MORE about California’s efforts to deregulate the alcohol industry.