After the Patriots and the Rams kicked off the lowest-scoring Super Bowl in its 53-year history, ad space became as scrutinized as the space between Rams wide receiver Brandin Cooks and the ball in the third quarter. Whether you were wearing a Brady or Goff jersey at Charley’s last Sunday night, rivalries united during commercial breaks to watch the notorious Super Bowl ads.
From the Backstreet Boys promoting Doritos, to Amazon Alexa controlling all the electricity on planet Earth, corporate America went above and beyond to entertain. Toyota and Google were among those that used their 30 seconds of fame to contribute to the ongoing national discussion on diversity and inclusion. Some could argue that the ads were more eventful than the 13-3 score.
It is well known that each player takes home a nice bonus check for even stepping foot into Mercedes-Benz Stadium — $118,000 bonus for each Patriots player and $59,000 for each Rams player according to CNBC. This amounts to a huge pay raise for some players, but pocket change for those like Rams defensive tackle Aaron Donald, whose average annual salary amounts to $22.5 million. While Donald has to work for an entire year to earn that sum, the real moneymaker is CBS, earning an average of $5.25 million for each 30-second commercial it airs. CBS’s final estimated paycheck for the night? Over $350 million.
While many entities saw a big pay day, Bud Light may have a different narrative. Despite it being a market leader, its continually declining market share resulted in ads as bold as a Hail Mary in an attempt to reverse this trend. Their partnership with HBO to advertise “Game of Thrones” made for a moderately controversial ad that night, as the brand’s typically light-hearted scripts took a turn to adapt to the violent nature of the television show. Advertising two brands within an ad can often create beneficial synergies, but it is a risk within the short 45-second timespan. Even more risky was pitching it to CBS, as displaying any violence is usually a tough sell. Nevertheless, the ad garnered successful buzz on social media.
What may be less of a hit with the U.S. justice system is Bud Light’s contentious false advertisement targeting their direct competitor, MillerCoors. In an ad stemming from Bud Light’s “Dilly Dilly” campaign, a king reroutes a misdelivered barrel of corn syrup to Miller Lite, where Miller claims to have already received its shipment. The king then “rightfully” delivers it to Coors Lite. Within minutes of the ad airing, MillerCoors and the National Corn Growers Association struck back on Twitter.
MillerCoors CEO Gavin Hattersley and his executive team took to Twitter within minutes, citing the same idea: MillerCoors does not use high fructose corn syrup, though Anheuser-Busch InBev (Bud Light’s parent company), does. Adam Collins, vice president of communications and community affairs, followed this up with a reminder of MillerCoors’ 17 consecutive quarters of increasing market share, while Bud Light rides on a losing streak. The NCGA then expressed their disappointment in Bud Light for putting corn syrup back into a negative light, thanking Miller and Coors for their business. However, this only added grease — or rather, corn syrup — to the fire.
Since that eventful Sunday night, Twitter accounts have done everything but stay silent. The NGCA has since tweeted disappointment in Bud Light and their praise for MillerCoors. Two days after the Big Game, MillerCoors delivered free beer to NGCA, and issued two separate statements clarifying an interesting point: While they do use corn syrup in the fermentation process to help their beers taste better, they do not use high fructose corn syrup, the ingredient that carries the connotation of having links to obesity and diabetes. Bud Light, however, waited out the storm for three days before issuing its own statement via Twitter. Less apologetic, they presented it as a vintage piece of parchment written by the king from their commercials, standing by the ad and emphasizing that they brew with rice, hops and barley, and not corn syrup. Interestingly enough, there is little to no difference between using rice and corn as a source of sugar in the fermentation process. But perception itself can make or break your product.
There is a greater context to the disputes than just competitors MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch InBev. According to Google Trends, it is estimated that more people have shown interest in corn syrup this month than ever before. This has resurfaced the conversation around high fructose corn syrup’s detrimental effect on American health, but Bud Light has made the effort to deem corn syrup synonymous to high fructose corn syrup by association. In light of this, companies have risen to the occasion to defend themselves before a spotlight lands on them, including Samuel Adams and Frank’s Red Hots.
So, what’s the difference? While there is ongoing debate about the health disadvantages of corn syrup and high fructose corn syrup, the University of California-Berkeley cites that while glucose (corn syrup’s main component) has a direct effect on blood sugar, fructose (high fructose corn syrup’s main component) has an immediate effect on blood fat, which could lead to a fatty liver and decreased insulin sensitivity. Companies lean away from promoting their use of either, but high fructose corn syrup comes with arguably worse side effects and the baggage of negative cultural connotation.
While Twitter accounts wrap up their focus on the #corntroversy, a lawsuit could surface. Under the Lanham Act, if there is a misleading statement of material fact in an ad that expressly uses the name of a competitor, it is deemed false advertising. Bud Light directly used MillerCoors’ name and implied that their beer contains corn syrup, which could ultimately result in a false advertising claim. After all, corn syrup is used in the fermentation process, but allegedly does not appear in the final product. Thus, if MillerCoors decides to pursue a case against Anheuser-Busch InBev, it will be up to the court to decide if the ad’s statements were materially false. In other words, would they impact a typical customer’s decision to purchase MillerCoors? If so, Bud Light could owe both monetary damages and an injunction from running the ad.
Bud Light may just have a court date in their future, but until then, cheers to CBS and #GoPats.