Anheuser-Busch gets back to basics for Super Bowl commercials after Bud Light controversy

The king of beers is sparing no expense in its goal to reign supreme over the Super Bowl. And Anheuser-Busch’s trio of big brands are calling on saviors old and new to take on a particularly big lift this year.

Three years after sitting out the Super Bowl for the first time in 37 years, Budweiser once again trots out its iconic Clydesdales, this time getting an assist from a Labrador retriever. Michelob Ultra targets both its middle-aged demographic and the growing soccer sector by taking Lionel Messi, Ted Lasso and Dan Marino’s talents to something resembling South Beach.

And if Taylor Swift is America’s Sweetheart, Peyton Manning is its nonthreatening dollop of mayonnaise. Who better than Manning, then, to lead the charge for Bud Light in a feverish 60-second spot flanked by Post Malone, UFC’s Dana White and an eponymous genie?

AD METER 2024: Register to vote on the best commercials from the big game

The theme seems clear: Anheuser-Busch, whose products have claimed 14 championships in USA TODAY’s Ad Meter measuring public opinion of Super Bowl spots, is getting back to basics.

“It’s an important moment,” says Kyle Norrington, Anheuser-Busch’s chief commercial officer. “It continues to get tougher as a marketer, but this is an amazing moment. People are seeing 10,000 pieces of communications every day, but Super Bowl’s just different.

“The world is watching. This is an opportunity for us to lean in and get back to what we’ve been doing since 1975, which is great beer marketing.”

And, in a sense, control what they can control.

'We always listen to our consumers'

For decades – heck, Bud bottled its first beer in 1876 – Anheuser-Busch has been the oxygen of the USA’s beer scene. And its modern dominance has come almost in lockstep with the NFL’s rise as America’s dominant entertainment vehicle.

Bud Light’s 1982 debut arrived just in time for the Super Bowl to take off as the country’s secular holiday, and by the end of the decade, the Bud Bowl added another commercial entry point to join legacy Bud and its Clydesdales in dominating the big game.

By 2001, Bud Light was the top-selling beer in the USA. Yet it would relinquish that distinction in 2023.

The brand somewhat unwittingly wandered into the battlefield of culture wars after transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney promoted on Instagram a partnership with Bud Light.

Never mind that the number of commemorative Mulvaney cans scarcely represented a drop in Bud Light’s ocean of macrobrew – it exceeded $5 billion in 2022 sales – nor was it indicative of a significant shift in marketing strategy.

The right-wing flotilla attacked, with cannons both proverbial and literal blazing. Yet unlike other instances of aggrieved reactionary backlash, the effect went far beyond Kid Rock’s courageous attack on a 12-pack.

By July, Bud Light had ceded its No. 1 spot domestically to Modelo, although analysts suggest that the trend line was developing before 2023. The brand then faced more backlash when Mulvaney said the company did not adequately support her in the aftermath.

By November, Anheuser-Busch announced chief marketing officer Benoit Garbe would be resigning at year’s end, with Norrington “fully dedicated” to marketing going forward.

“We always listen to our consumers. And what they’ve been telling us is, ‘Give us what we all love about your brands,’” says Norrington of the path ahead after 2023.

“So, ‘Give us more football.’ We’ve reconnected with a partner that we started with many years ago with the UFC. ‘Give us more great fight nights.’

“We’re listening, we’re learning and we’re continuing to move forward, which is how we’re thinking about it.”

In that way, the Super Bowl, some 10 months after the controversy began, is timed fortuitously, says Charles R. Taylor, professor of marketing at Villanova’s School of Business.

“It’s a crucial moment because enough time has passed that the controversy has died down,” says Taylor. “I think people are now open to their message in a way that wouldn’t have been the case much of last year.

“Regardless of one’s political views, Bud Light really got a bad deal out of that. But when they lost market share leadership after all these years, I absolutely think it’s a crucial year to start recovering and turn the consumer’s attention to something else and put that in the past.”

Soccer, anyone?

The Las Vegas Sphere will showcase Budweiser.
The Las Vegas Sphere will showcase Budweiser.

Fútbol as the next frontier

It’s no accident Messi and "Ted Lasso’s" Jason Sudeikis are sprinkled into the Michelob Ultra spot: Soccer is about to further dominate the landscape, and Anheuser-Busch is plotting its attack.

Michelob Ultra is the official beer of Copa America ’24, to be contested in the USA in June and July. One year later, the FIFA Club World Cup will be contested over a similar footprint.

And it’s all an appetizer for the 2026 World Cup, the final scheduled for New Jersey’s MetLife Stadium.

“I call these the golden years of soccer in America,” says Norrington. “Really critical for us to land our connection. We’re going to ensure that we make the absolute most of these next few years with soccer and Michelob Ultra.”

But first, the more familiar football. Las Vegas was deluged with Bud branding even before the 49ers and Chiefs touched down on the Strip.

Budweiser has purchased a significant chunk of display time on the still-new Sphere, as U2 gives way to the Clydesdales in a snow globe-type display that will be visible throughout most of town. Lil Wayne and T-Pain will extol the virtues of Michelob Ultra and drop a few tracks Saturday night at the world’s largest TopGolf venue.

And newly-signed Bud Light pitchman Zach Bryan will play to a sold-out crowd Friday night at The Cosmopolitan.

Come Sunday, Anheuser-Busch reclaims its status as the No. 1 alcohol sponsor for the big game. Whether Bud Light can get back to that top spot is a question for another day.

“We put some emotional and entertaining content together for America,” says Norrington. “Our investment as the No. 1 spender on alcohol in the Super Bowl is unwavering, to connect with consumers and brand lovers when everybody’s watching.

“It’s a very important piece of the puzzle and as we look at the calendar year, kicking it off in a big way with the Super Bowl is the way to get things started.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Bud Light Super Bowl commercial is back to basics after 2023 challenge