Locals take to the streets for a trans rights march in New Orleans last year.
Social media influencer marketing has opened up a vast new field of opportunities for brands to connect with consumers and build trust. With thousands of influencers from which to choose, brands can build on longstanding engagement efforts in addition to connecting with groups that might otherwise fly under their radar. Last week’s right-wing firestorm over Bud Light and the transgender TikTok star, actor and activist Dylan Mulvaney is a case in point.
The match that lit the media flame last week was a Bud Light can bearing the face of Dylan Mulvaney, seen in one of her recent TikTok videos. The popular star has been chronicling her transition on TikTok for the past year, and Bud Light engaged her to support its new Easy Carry Contest promotion.
As described by reporter Samantha Riedel of the Condé Nast publication Them, Mulvaney has already worked with a number of brands including Ulta Beauty, Instacart and Kate Spade. Among other notable media exposures, last October she interviewed U.S. President Joe Biden about trans rights for the news organization Now This.
The backlash against Bud Light is not the first time Mulvaney has been exposed to online hate. Her high profile has made Mulvaney a regular target of online pundits and public figures who are known for transphobic rhetoric, including U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and U.S. Sen. Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Riedel notes in Them.
However, Bud Light happens to be the top-selling beer in the nation. It is found in millions of refrigerators around the country, including those owned by anti-trans personalities. Bud Light’s Dylan Mulvaney can thus presented many of those anti-trans trolls with a unique and handy opportunity to act out their hatred in public by circulating videos of themselves destroying their own stashes of Bud Light.
In one widely reported example, the singer-songwriter Kid Rock circulated a video of himself shooting at cans of Bud Light. That cartoonish act of violence has more ominous echoes in the rise of anti-trans hate incidents and a fresh torrent of anti-trans state laws. In addition, Rock is known for his affinity with former U.S. President Donald Trump, who has adopted an anti-trans agenda in his latest campaign for the Oval Office.
Other reactions to the Dylan Mulvaney can simply provoked ridicule. In particular, the country-western singer Travis Tritt circulated a video of himself replacing cans of Bud Light with cans of Coors in his refrigerator. However, social media users were quick to clap back with images of Pride-themed Coors cans from Molson Coors’ “Tap into Change” campaign. Some bartenders have also reported that their customers are protesting the Dylan Mulvaney can by switching from Bud Light to Coors, though so far those appear to be anecdotal stories.
Anti-trans drinkers may want to check their beer fridges and liquor cabinets before circulating any more Bud Light destruction videos. Plenty of other brewers have featured LGBTQ personalities in their ad campaigns, including Miller Lite, Heineken and Brooklyn Brewery. Jack Daniels has also launched an entire Pride campaign around its Jack Fire brand.
The simple fact is that LGBTQ beer-drinkers are an influential consumer demographic that has caught the attention of Budweiser, Coors and other companies for decades as part and parcel of their efforts to beat the competition.
Slate reporter and author Allyson P. Brantley adds an interesting historical element to the story. According to her research, Molson Coors began to focus on engaging LGBTQ consumers in the 1970s after the company learned that striking Coors workers gained support from the LGBTQ community in San Francisco, which launched a boycott.
Despite efforts to engage with LGBTQ beer-drinkers, Coors’ affiliation with right-wing causes continued to fuel the LGBTQ boycott of the brand into the 1990s. The company has stepped up its LGBTQ support even more since then, though Brantley observes that the tendency to stay away from Coors still lingers among LGBTQ drinkers. That could explain why Tritt and other anti-trans personalities thought it would be a particularly significant gesture to replace their Bud Light with Coors, rather than another brand.
“Bud Light — as well as Coors, Miller and other competitors — now market openly and creatively to queer consumers because they have long been a source of both protest and profit,” Brantley concludes in Slate. “Whether these efforts are genuine or not is another matter.”
That just about sums it up. Bud Light's parent company, Anheuser-Busch, pushed back against the anti-trans critics in a statement last weekend to the Associated Press. The company explained that it “works with hundreds of influencers across our brands as one of many ways to authentically connect with audiences across various demographics.”
The beer cans in question were a commemorative gift to Mulvaney and not intended for sale to the general public, Anheuser-Busch told the AP. That’s too bad. Millions of beer-drinkers might like to buy a Dylan Mulvaney commemorative beer can for display, if not to drink the contents.
In the meantime, brands are facing another test this week at the upcoming Possible conference in Miami Beach. The event is sponsored by the A-list digital marketing association MMA Global, and it prominently features an on-stage interview with Tesla CEO and Twitter owner Elon Musk.
The speaking engagement comes as Musk faces increasing scrutiny over his anti-trans statements on social media and in person. Among other issues, Musk also allied with Trump to muddy the waters over COVID-19 protection in the early months of the pandemic, his Tesla brand has taken a hit over charges of racism at its Fremont, California factory, and he has become an outspoken critic of the ESG movement, in addition to acquiring a reputation for tolerating or even encouraging anti-trans rhetoric and other hate speech on Twitter.
“Musk is slated to speak on April 18 at the Possible conference from MMA Global, the premier digital marketing association,” Max Tani of the news organization Semafor reported. “He’ll be interviewed by NBCU ad chief Linda Yaccarino and make the case that advertisers — who have abandoned Twitter because they don’t believe it’s a safe place to advertise — should return.”
Keeping Musk at arm’s length is just one challenge the MMA conference poses to brands. Another is the location of the event in Florida, where Gov. Ron DeSantis has been front and center in the movement to dehumanize and criminalize transgender persons and limit trans rights.
The MMA conference could provide attendees with an opportunity to take a strong, public stand in support of trans rights and human rights, as Disney has recently done. However, that remains to be seen.
Image credit: Aiden Craver/Unsplash
Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.