It was clear that the ad Anheuser-Busch InBev (NYSE:BUD) ran during the Super Bowl tried to suggest there was something wrong with Molson Coors (NYSE:TAP) using corn syrup in the brewing process. No doubt the megabrewer hoped beer drinkers would confuse the sugar used to feed yeast during the fermentation process with high fructose corn syrup, the much-maligned sweetener that has been linked to high rates of obesity.
Yet since Anheuser-Busch also uses corn syrup for brewing, just not for Bud Light -- the beer mentioned in the Super Bowl ad -- it also opened up the brewer to charges of hypocrisy.
Yet amid the backlash against Bud Light from corn farmers and processors, some good did come of it as brewers rallied around those who make their living from the crop.
Molson Coors responded to the Super Bowl ad with a full-page Miller Lite ad in The New York Times on Feb. 5 addressing the "corntroversy" and attributing the superior taste of its beer to the corn syrup it uses. Then Coors Light held a nationwide "Toast to Farmers" celebration on Feb. 15 in response to the brouhaha, complete with a #ToastToFarmers hashtag on social media.
Apparently the backlash was intense enough that Anheuser-Busch felt pressured into partnering with Farm Rescue, a non-profit organization that helps farmers in the country's Corn Belt that have been hit with financial distress due to illness, injury, or natural disaster.
On Valentine's Day, the brewer sent out a tweet saying it would donate $5 to Farm Rescue for every retweet. It also called on everyone to join A-B "in supporting all the hardworking men & women who grow America's crops." Notably, the tweet came from A-B's Busch brand, not Bud Light. Busch is one of those beers that uses corn syrup in the fermentation process.
It not only used the #ToastToFarmers hashtag to promote the effort, but it hijacked the campaign with a ToastToFarmers.com url that redirects viewers to a Busch site celebrating its "proud support" of farmers.
In the hard-feelings department, however, it's also been reported that Molson's MillerCoors unit has backed out of an alliance with A-B, Heineken, and Constellation Brands that was to launch a national ad campaign to help reverse the secular decline in beer consumption.
Check out the latest earnings call transcript for Anheuser-Busch InBev.
One hand giveth, the other taketh
Although Anheuser-Busch is quoted in the Farm Rescue announcement as saying, "At Anheuser-Busch, we know that great beer starts with quality ingredients, which is why we source nearly all our corn, rice, and barley from American farmers," it had sent out a tweet a few days after the game from the king in the Bud Light ad, pushing the notion that only value segment beer was brewed with corn syrup.
A scroll titled "Yeeeesh! That escalated quickly" begins by saying all he was trying to do was return some lost corn syrup, but then goes on to note that although his accountant tried to get him to brew with corn syrup because it's less expensive, "we brew with rice, along with the finest hops, barley, and water, because I'm the King and it's not my job to save money."
Of course, Anheuser-Busch premium brands like Stella Artois also use corn syrup.
As of this writing, the Farm Rescue tweet has over 41,000 retweets, and the organization says $250,000 was raised by the campaign. While that is a drop in the bucket compared to the estimated $60 million Anheuser-Busch spent on Super Bowl ads, the brewer did agree to double the amount and tweeted out a photo of an oversized check made out to Farm Rescue for $500,000.
Although the brewer may not have realized the kind of backlash that would arise from the corn syrup ad, it ultimately brought much-needed attention (and money) to a critical component of the economy, and of the brewing process itself. And that's something even the Bud Light king can toast. Dilly dilly.