1. Money

Bud Light’s Fan Cans and Social Responsibility

By August 23, 2009

On the one hand, you have to ask yourself, what took them so long? Now that Anheuser-Busch has rolled out a new marketing campaign in which it is packaging cans of Bud Light in the team colors of various college teams, it seems like an obvious idea. Other marketers of just about everything from stadium chairs to caskets put their product in the colors of the local team. Way back in the 1980s, when Doug Flutie was the star quarterback for Boston College, I saw a dog wearing a maroon and gold sweater with the words “Dog Flutie” on it.

But at the same time you can see why adults who run programs that involve young people pull their hair out after the moves of certain consumer product companies. R.J Reynolds promoted Joe Camel, a cigarette-smoking cartoon character for years. Abercrombie & Fitch produced a catalogue of 20-somethings one year that reviewers called soft-porn. Now college administrators are worried that beer cans emblazoned with the colors of their schools might promote binge drinking among underage students.

Anheuser-Busch’s vice president of corporate social responsibility, says the “fan cans” are aimed at people of legal drinking age. But obviously alcohol marketing campaigns are bound to be noticed by students under the age of 21, particularly around college campuses. That’s why the administrators are worked up. At least 25 colleges have formerly asked Anheuser-Busch to drop the campaign near their campuses. To its credit, Anheuser-Busch says it will do so near any college that makes a formal complaint.

Anheuser-Busch is no longer a public company, having sold out to InBev NV of Belgium in 2008. And alcohol is one of those products most socially responsible mutual funds screen out anyway. But these are the sorts of business decisions that draw the attention of socially responsible investors. Anheuser-Busch says it is committed to stopping underage drinking. Coloring their beer cans in school colors creates some doubt. Another company may be committed to product safety. How well it reacts when a problem is spotted would prove it. Yet another firm might talk about its commitment to the environment, but it’s unwilling to spend the money to reduce its impact.

Marketing is often about gimmicks and gimmicks lead to impulse buys. Heck, if someone put a Red Sox logo on a reasonably priced bottle of cabernet, I might give it a try. But I’m not 19 and I won’t be an undergrad hanging with the dudes on Saturdays this fall, laughing about my cool-colored brewsky can.

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