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Budweiser's latest marketing concept to entice underage drinkers. The
Fan Can. It's time to "Can Bud", in more ways than one.
Bud Light 'Fan Can' Brewing Up
Anheuser-Busch pulls promotions at some colleges
Beer Maker's New 'Fan Cans' Ale College Officials
Bud Light 'Fan Can' effort irks colleges
Bud Light 'Fan Can' Brewing Up Trouble
In the afterglow of a Super Bowl victory by my hometown NFL team, way back when it was a Super Bowl-caliber franchise and I wasn't a sportswriter who had to feign objectivity, a particular bottle of wine in a package store caught my eye. It wasn't the vintage of wine that struck me; it was the label on the bottle celebrating my guys. So I bought half a case of Redskins wine. I'm sure a bunch of other Skins fans did the same. "Brilliant," those two Guinness cartoon figures would say of such marketing.
The folks who make and market Bud understand as much. With college football kicking off this week, they've unveiled a similar strategy to sell their flagship brew. They call it the Fan Can, a can of Bud Light festooned in the colors of a couple dozen or so major college football teams like Texas, Kansas, Michigan (it's still a major program), Boston College and Maryland, where I teach part-time.
I'm sure a bunch of Longhorns, Jayhawks and Terps fans will all but blindly snap up Bud Light cans dressed in their favorite school's colors just like I did Redskins wine. I'm sure the Bud people want and expect that to happen.
There's just one little problem: Redskins wine was aimed at fanatical NFL fans who happened to be adults that acted like idiot kids; the Fan Can is aimed at fanatical college football fans who happen to be mostly kids that want to act like idiot adults. The drinking age in this country is 21. The majority of people on most college campuses in this country are younger.
This is like the tobacco industry using stylish lifestyle images to hawk its carcinogens on the public.
I don't mean to sound Pollyannish. I drank alcohol in college on a campus in a city, Evanston, Ill., that at the time was dry and home to the Women's Christian Temperance Union that spearheaded Prohibition in the '20s. And when I get done with this column I'm going to meet some friends at a fine establishment in downtown D.C. to celebrate a birthday with fine food and alcoholic beverage. But this isn't about me. It's about a multi-billion dollar company having some modicum of respect for our nation's laws if not our nation's youth. Sure, they're going to drink. But do you have to lead them to water?
What does Anheuser-Busch, the Bud Light brewer, care, though? Bud Light isn't just its leading brand; it is the nation's top brand. And like most everything else with a price on it these days, Bud Light sales are in the bottom of the barrel. Some beer industry prognosticators have predicted Bud Light is heading to its first sales decline in over a quarter century. So let's get those kids to boost sales!
"We called them [Anheuser-Busch]," Janet Evans, a senior attorney for the Federal Trade Commission, which oversees alcohol advertising, told me. "When you're dealing with college campuses, you're dealing with an unusually high underage population. And you've got a high level of binge drinking. It's a question of responsibility. We asked them to stop."
Bud Light's makers said, sure. If a college complains, it will cease its campaign in that community. Maryland has complained. So have a bunch of other universities.
The Associated Press reported last week that Boston College was among several schools that sent letters objecting to the use of its colors -- maroon and gold at BC -- on Bud Light cans. It sent letters on its own and through its athletic conference, the Atlantic Coast Conference.
The AP said the college pointed to trademark infringement but was most concerned about the message the advertising sent about drinking and was concerned others would think the university was helping conduct the campaign.
"We think it's an ill-conceived and inappropriate campaign that runs counter to our collective efforts to combat underage drinking," the AP quoted BC spokesman Jack Dunn.
Anheuser-Busch's response: The AP said the brewer informed BC that it had a right to market its product using colors associated with the school.
"Nonetheless, in order to avoid a dispute over the concerns raised by your letter, Anheuser-Busch has decided not to proceed with Fan Cans in such color combinations in your community at this time," the brewer said in a letter to BC that BC shared with the AP.
That shouldn't have been a difficult to reach conclusion for Anheuser-Busch. Like other makers of beer and spirits in this country, it has agreed to FTC guidelines, the FTC lawyer said, not to market to sports with a population base that isn't at least 70 percent at or above the drinking age.
"I think they made a mistake," Evans said.
I think they stuck a wet finger in the air and decided the wind was blowing their way.
This was good reason why Bud Light's brewers acted as if they wouldn't encounter much if any blowback from their goofy new campaign replete with a screaming head television commercial that was likely to make all of us go batty. For starters, there is already a lot of beer -- and who knows what other mind-dulling potions -- on college campuses, and always has been. (I was part of a student government campaign at Northwestern that convinced the city and administration to allow a rathskeller in the student union building based on the argument it would cut down on alcoholism because so many kids were hoarding alcohol illegally and, as a result, were more likely to binge drink. They bought it!)
On top of that, take a peek at your cupboard or bar holding drinking glasses. See a beer stein with your alma mater's mascot on it or shot glasses with your alma mater's seal? I bet you do. They are readily available at most any campus bookstore or, if you're out of town, conveniently had online.
I asked FTC lawyer Evans about that apparently disingenuous message from universities now crying foul.
"I can't answer that," she said.
We're all in cahoots.
Anheuser-Busch pulls promotions at some
The Federal Trade Commission has discussed the issue with the brewer, both the agency and the St. Louis-based brewer said. Regulators are concerned that cans will be marketed to fans under the legal drinking age of 21, said Janet Evans, a senior attorney at the FTC responsible for alcohol marketing issues.
The industry's regulations require at least 70 percent of an advertisement's audience to be above 21, and Evans said that doesn't happen on college campuses.
"When you've got a college campus audience you've got a very large number of persons who are below the legal drinking age there, and in addition, you've got a population that engages almost exclusively in binge drinking," she said.
She said the FTC could neither confirm nor deny the existence of an investigation, though she did say she was certain Anheuser-Busch would not repeat this effort in the future.
Anheuser-Busch told the FTC the cans would be sold through retailers where purchasers must be 21 or older, said Carol Clark, Anheuser-Busch vice president for corporate social responsibilty.
Still, the company said it is listening to the complaints.
"Certain cans are not being made available in communities where organizations asked us not to offer them," Clark said in a statement.
The nation's largest brewer started the program earlier this month for its flagship Bud Light brand, where sales have been suffering amid the recession. The brand the nation's biggest could see its first sales decline in 27 years, according to industry estimates.
The "Fan Can" program puts school colors on Bud Light cans and was launched to coincide with the start of football season a popular time to drink beer. Anheuser-Busch, which was bought by Belgium-based InBev last year, said the cans have no college logos, names or other identifiers just 27 color combinations.
The program is nationwide, where the brewer's wholesalers choose to participate. The company estimates half of its wholesalers are participating.
It's also unclear how many schools are objecting. Some 25 colleges represented by Collegiate Licensing Co. have sent the brewer formal letters asking it to stop the program at their campuses, according to the company, which represents some 200 colleges and universities. It declined to name specific schools.
Boston College objected, spokesman Jack Dunn said, by sending letters objecting to the use of its maroon and gold coloring to the brewer on its own and through its athletic conference.
The school cited trademark infringement but is mainly concerned about the message the program sends about drinking, he said, and worries drinkers could think the university is involved in the effort.
"We think it's an ill-conceived and inappropriate campaign that runs counter to our collective efforts to combat underage drinking," he said.
Anheuser-Busch told Boston College in a letter earlier this month it stands by its rights to market its product using colors associated with the school.
"Nonetheless, in order to avoid a dispute over the concerns raised by your letter, Anheuser-Busch has decided not to proceed with Fan Cans in such color combinations in your community at this time," according to a copy of the letter the school gave to The Associated Press.
In some cases, such as at the University of Wisconsin, the campaign hadn't even made it near campus yet, but the schools didn't want to wait to tell Anheuser-Busch to drop the program.
"If you don't protect your trademarks, you eventually lose them, so we felt it was important to at least communicate to them that we didn't think it was an appropriate tact," said Vince Sweeney, vice chancellor for university relations at University of Wisconsin.
He said the school in Madison, Wis., received a letter from Anheuser-Busch this week saying it would stop selling the red-and-white cans in the area.
Texas A&M University also received such a letter after sending one of its own. Spokesman Jason Cook said their concern was that people would think the school had licensed the maroon-and-white cans of beer.
The University of Colorado at Boulder objected not only because of concerns about protecting its trademarks but also worries that the effort could jeopardize its relationship with MillerCoors, spokesman Bronson Hilliard said. Coors Brewing Co., half of MillerCoors, is based in nearby Denver.
A dozen schools represented by Licensing Resource Group, including Mississippi State, have either sent letters to the brewer or local distributors asking that the program be ceased in their areas.
Evans, the FTC attorney, said it is difficult to promote drinking on campuses responsibly and this effort is not the way to do it.
"We really wouldn't want them to do this again," she said.
Beer Maker's New 'Fan Cans' Ale College
The folks at Anheuser-Busch, who have crafted humorous commercials and radio spots in the past, are betting you will like Bud Light cans emblazoned with your school colors instead of the traditional blue and silver. A new marketing campaign has led to the creation of 27 color schemes, specific to certain colleges, which will be sold in corresponding markets. The so-called "Fan Cans" are Anheuser-Busch's efforts to boost sales of Bud Light, the nation's best-selling beer, which is facing its first sales decline in its 27-year history. Brewers around the globe announced this week they will hike the cost of a cold one to compensate for declining sales and higher commodity costs.
College administrators around the country aren't feeling the buzz, however. Some schools, like the University of Michigan, have claimed the cans are a copyright infringement and have threatened legal action. Not all students like the idea, either, including a graduate student at Stony Brook University in New York who says the company is "trying to make money by exploiting students." Claims are flying that promoting the new cans near campuses will contribute to underage consumption and binge drinking, and that the cans invite assumptions that the beer maker is endorsed by the college.
The campaign targets only legal-age consumers, according to Anheuser-Busch, which has committed to remove the cans near any college that makes a formal complaint. The brewer began rolling out the cans, which it points out do not include any logos or school names, earlier this month.
Despite colleges' concerns with ethical and legal implications, no one knows if the campaign will actually work. Bud Light in Michigan's maize and blue is going to taste just the same as Bud Light in Ohio State's scarlet and gray. But if you're a fan of college football or live anywhere in either state, you know there's nothing shared by the two rivals except an uncanny passion for beating the other.
In Ohio, fan hysteria seems to be a social norm. So much so that GQ recently named Ohio State to its "Top 25 Douchiest Colleges," and gave it top honors as the "Home of: The Excessive-School-Pride Douche." GQ listed "Dressing for class each morning as if you were the offensive-line coach" as one of the school's affectations, so needless to say, Fan Cans might do well in the Buckeye state.
Tanner Nelson, an Ohio State senior, said he has seen the scarlet and gray packs for sale around campus and while he thinks more people might be prone to buy a can with their colors, the impact will end there.
"I really don't care what's on the can, but it is something different," Nelson told me. "It's a pride thing. Do I think it will lead to more drinking? No. Most of the people that will buy these cases of beer were going to buy beer regardless. If someone plans on drinking, they are going to drink no matter what. They can either choose a can with their school's colors or they can choose an average can."
Underage and binge drinking are certainly less laughable issues nationwide. The perception of massive consumption has been shown to be a key contributor in leading others to binge. Between 1993 and 2001, 18- to 20-year-olds showed a 56 percent jump in the rate of heavy drinking episodes. Underage drinkers consume 90 percent of the alcohol during binges, and underage drinking kills some 5,000 young people and contributes to around 600,000 injuries and 100,000 cases of sexual assault annually, according to an article in The Atlantic by a professor who advocates for more education and a lowered drinking age.
What does all this have to do with a can of beer wrapped in home team colors? Potentially a lot, administrators say. But then again, who cares what the can looks like? Are the colors of the cans really going to attract more people, specifically students who are underage, to drink? And not just drink, but drink more and drink faster? That assumption seems far-fetched.
Beer is beer and drunk is drunk no matter how you color the can.
But the concern with irresponsible consumption on college campuses is
real. Cans might not be the problem that colleges claim they are, but
they sure don't help. Besides, I prefer bottles anyway.
Bud Light 'Fan Can' effort irks
A U.S. official and some colleges are telling the brewer of Bud Light to can it.
Bud Light rolled out a marketing gimmick, "Fan Can," with the beer cans decorated with college team colors in selected markets just as the schools -- and their football teams -- were gearing up for a new season.
But the campaign drew criticism from Janet Evans, a senior attorney with the Federal Trade Commission who oversees alcohol advertising, and from certain colleges because the cans could encourage underage drinking on their campuses.
"We've told them we don't ever want to see a campaign like this again," Evans said Wednesday. "We're concerned about the promotion because it's targeted to college campuses where there are a large number of binge drinkers and underage persons in the audience."
The brewer -- Anheuser-Busch InBev, a Belgian-based company that bought giant U.S. brewer Anheuser-Busch last year -- said the beer can campaign features 27 different color combinations but does not extend to California.
"This is a voluntary program made available to all wholesalers nationwide, and roughly half of our wholesalers are participating," Carol Clark, Anheuser-Busch's vice president for corporate social responsibility, said in a statement.
Fan Can, she said, was "expressly timed to coincide with the beginning of the football season and baseball playoffs."
But some universities in the targeted regions, such as Boston College and the University of Colorado, argued that the colored cans infringe on their trademarks and incorrectly hinted that the colleges were endorsing the program, even though the colleges' names and logos are not on the cans.
"We did not want to give the perception that we were co-sponsoring in any way a campaign that would be geared toward underage drinking," said Boston College spokesman Jack Dunn.
He said other schools in the Atlantic Coast Conference, and in the Southeastern Conference, also called on the brewer to stop distributing the beer cans in school colors.
Michigan, Oklahoma State, Wisconsin, Iowa State and Minnesota also objected, according to published reports.
As a result, Anheuser-Busch has told those schools that complained that it would drop the program in their areas, Dunn said.
"We place great value in the relationships we've built with college administrators and campus communities," Clark said in her statement, adding that "certain cans are not being made available in communities where organizations had asked us not to offer them."
Evans noted that the FTC for years has worked with the alcohol industry on boosting advertising standards and that the agency was "not saying that they were targeting underage drinkers."
But standards in sports sponsorships have lagged behind those for advertising in print, on television and the Internet, she said.
"We think they should make this further change," Evans said.
"We just think it's not a responsible decision to engage in that
type of campaign."