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When Kid Rock shot at cases of Bud Light in April, the stunt seemed futile for several reasons. First, Bud Light was the best-selling beer in the country. Second, most consumers probably weren’t familiar with the root of Kid Rock’s ire: the brand’s decision to send a customized beer can to trans actress and influencer Dylan Mulvaney. Finally, most boycotts fail. So I declared, rather optimistically, that Bud Light would be fine. Now I must issue a mea culpa, albeit with a caveat or two. Sales are dipping, and in May, the beer was forced to concede the top title to Modelo Especial. Reuters reported that sales of Bud Light and Budweiser “dropped 28% and 11.7%, respectively, from a year earlier, while Modelo Especial sales rose 8.5%.”
There’s likely more than one reason for the beer’s travails. In recent years it has faced “tough competition” from other brands, the New York Times reported. Nevertheless, the right’s boycott, epitomized by Kid Rock and his gun, has clearly left a mark. I was wrong, and the Bud Light boycott has defied most expectations. But why?
First, a bit of context. Boycotts can work, as James Surowiecki pointed out in The Atlantic. “The 1955–56 Montgomery bus boycott, the United Farm Workers’ grape boycott of the mid-’60s, and Greenpeace’s boycott of Shell in ’95 all worked — wringing major concessions from the company or industry they targeted,” he wrote. But initially, there wasn’t much reason to believe the Bud Light boycott would follow their lead. Like me, Dr. Brayden King of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management had first assumed the right’s beer boycott would fail.
“Twenty-five percent of boycotts that have some sort of demand and then get national media attention actually get some sort of concession from the company they’re targeting,” says King, a professor of management and organizations who studies boycotts. With the Bud Light boycott, the right had expressed no clear demand beyond a generalized hatred for LGBTQ+ people. Nor was there a group that Bud Light executives could negotiate with to achieve some resolution. “We know from past boycotts that that is usually not very successful,” he says. By targeting consumer behavior, boycotters had set themselves a difficult task. Consumers are “habitual,” he adds, and tend not to change their behavior. If they like Bud Light, they’ll keep buying Bud Light.
Now they’ve stopped and King has theories. “One is that Bud Light is a product that has lots of substitutes, such as new products that you can go to quite easily,” he says. “So, if you’re going to the grocery store to buy your pack of beer, right next to Bud Light in the refrigerator is Coors Light or Miller Lite. And for most people, the taste of those products is pretty indistinguishable.” (Connoisseurs might disagree.) “The other reason, I think, is pretty important, which is that people tend to drink alcohol and beer in particular in groups of people,” he adds. When you hang out on a Friday night with your friends and some beer, “you’re doing that in a group of people who are often like you. Your friends tend to have the same political views that you do. And so friends, as you know, hold each other accountable.”
Organizations and institutions have also participated in the boycott, King says. Some concert venues bowed to conservative country-music stars and refused to sell Bud Light. “Any time you have an organization or an institutional-led boycott, it’s going to have a much bigger impact on sales than if you’re just relying on individual consumers to make those decisions,” he says. Add social media to the mix, and the results can be potent. “I would say the concept that we use in social science to describe this is that it gives social proof that this is something that people, at least of that political bent, should think and do,” he adds. The right has devised a purity test for itself, and right now, conservatives are eager to comply.
So is Bud Light. A lukewarm April statement disappointed LGBTQ+ people, who hoped the brand would stand by Mulvaney, and failed to mollify the right. Now, conservatives are congratulating themselves for their efforts. A May piece in The American Conservative repeatedly misgendered Mulvaney while claiming that people had “picked up on Bud’s contempt for its customers.” Then Anheuser-Busch put two marketing executives on leave. In the brand’s attempts to please conservatives, it has apparently abandoned Mulvaney. In late June, Mulvaney posted a video noting that no one from the brand had reached out to her as she endured months of harassment: “For a company to hire a trans person and then not publicly stand by them is worse, in my opinion, than not hiring a trans person at all, because it gives customers permission to be as transphobic and hateful as they want,” she said.
Because the boycott has no specific demands, it’s not clear how long conservatives will persist or if consumer behavior will turn against the brand for the long term. Bud Light might be hard to quit: CNN reported in July that Kid Rock’s Nashville bar still sells the beer. But one outcome is already clear. The boycott’s real victims aren’t Bud Light and its parent companies, but Mulvaney and the broader LGBTQ+ community. A backlash against LGBTQ+ rights is now underway, and corporations are caving to pressure.