University puts halt to Bud Light 'fan can' gimmick

BY ANNIE THOMAS
Daily Staff Reporter
Published September 6, 2009

Some may call them real men of marketing genius. But, University officials don't think so.

Documents

Do you think the University should have asked Bud Light not to print yellow and blue Fan Cans?

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In the lead-up to this year's college football season, Anheuser-Busch, the venerable beer producer, has rolled out "Fan Cans" targeted at winning over pigskin fans on campuses across the country. But University officials, in a series of letters to the company, threatened legal action if the beer company didn’t stop using the school's colors in the controversial campaign that sells Bud Light in color-coordinated cans that mimic the team colors of 27 colleges.

University Spokeswoman Kelly Cunningham said University officials urged Anheuser-Busch to stop the campaign because yellow and blue beer cans could give the impression that the University promotes underage drinking.

“If our name was associated with an alcoholic beverage, the natural next step for people would be that the University is endorsing alcohol,” she said. “Our students are mostly underage, and so it doesn’t make any sense.”

The University’s initial letter to Anheuser-Busch cited the Michigan licensing program, which officially licenses products to support the University’s educational and athletic programs. The letter said the program is “carefully crafted to assure that any products licensed support the University’s values and its standards for excellence,” and that the licensing of University trademarks on alcoholic beverages would not meet those standards.

The decision to lobby against the campaign contradicts the University’s position on a similar underage drinking matter raised last year.

After 129 college and university presidents chose to sign the Amethyst Initiative — a petition to lower the national drinking age from 21 to 18 — last year, University President Mary Sue Coleman opted not to.

In an interview with the Daily early last September, Coleman explained what she called an “easy” decision not to sign the petition.

"I certainly respect people who want to stimulate a discussion and I think that's what the Amethyst Initiative was all about," Coleman said. "What I disagree with is the notion that lowering the drinking age is going to somehow alleviate the problem."

Coleman did say at the time that she agreed with the petition’s characterization of the alcohol problem on campuses.

"This whole issue of binge drinking, particularly the kind of destructive, frequent binging on alcohol, is a big issue, and it's a big problem on college campuses," she said. "And it's one that I certainly think deserves a lot of discussion, a lot of attention about trying to find solutions."

Ari Parritz, President of the Interfraternity Council, wrote in an e-mail late last month that he agrees with the University’s position on the “Fan Cans,” but added that more needs to be done to combat binge drinking at the University.

“I emphatically stand with the University in its fight against binge drinking and underage consumption,” Parritz, a Public Policy senior, wrote. “Do I think Maize and Blue beer cans will spike consumption on football Saturdays? Probably not."

He added: “However, I believe there are more salient ways to fight alcohol abuse on campus than to petition against Anheuser-Busch.”

The Federal Trade Commission shares the University’s concerns on underage drinking. Janet Evans, a senior attorney at the FTC who oversees alcohol marketing issues, told The Associated Press that regulators are concerned the campaign could encourage underage drinking.

“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.

After correspondence with the University, the St. Louis-based beer company agreed not to sell the yellow and blue cans in the University “community,” but did not specify what, exactly, that meant.

The beer company has sent similar letters to those received by the University to other schools and colleges that have complained.

In a letter to Boston College administrators, Anheuser-Busch reasserted its intention to produce cans with the school's colors, while making a concession similar to the one Michigan received, according to the Associated Press.

"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 letter read.

In a return letter to Anheuser-Busch, the University asserted that the school’s “community” reaches beyond Ann Arbor's borders.

“To assure that there is no confusion, the University of Michigan is a statewide public institution,” the letter read. “Accordingly, it considers ‘its community’ to be the entire state of Michigan.”

In a statement released by Anheuser-Busch, Carol Clark, vice president of Corporate Social Responsibility, wrote that despite the “Fan Cans,” the company’s attitude toward underage drinking is unambiguous.

“Anheuser-Busch has a longstanding commitment to promoting responsible drinking,” Clark wrote in the release. “Our company’s position on college drinking is clear: If students are 21 or older and choose to drink, we want them to do so responsibly; if they are under 21, we want them to respect the law and not drink.”

Though many schools, including the University of Wisconsin and Boston College, are also asking Anheuser-Busch to stop selling cans with their school colors close to campus, other schools including Louisiana State University aren’t stopping the Fan Cans from coming to their area.

LSU Chancellor Michael Martin issued a statement endorsing the Securities and Exchange Commission’s position against the Fan Cans, which, according to a recent Wall Street Journal article, calls the program “socially irresponsible.” But Martin added that the new marketing campaign is the least of his worries.

“As an aside, given H1N1, a national recession, global climate change, raising high school dropout rates, the retirement of great faculty, deferred maintenance on this and many other campuses, among other pressing issues, the color of beer cans has not risen to the top of our urgency index,” Martin wrote in the statement.

Back in Ann Arbor, LSA sophomore Adam Steuer said when he’s looking for a drink on Football Saturday, it doesn’t matter what the can looks like.

“It’s unfortunate for Anheuser-Busch because they would have sold more beer,” he said, “but what’s on the inside of the can is more important than what’s on the outside.”