Bethany Thayer: Beer war should brew truth

April 4, 2019

DETROIT — With its lawsuit against competitor Anheuser-Busch, MillerCoors is taking a stand against dishonest advertising.

It might seem ironic to have one beer company holding another accountable. After all, marketing has always been about trying to highlight the benefits of one product over another to land a consumer’s dollar. Many products don’t differ much from competitors, so companies are left using gimmicks in advertising such as characters or catchy slogans to gain an edge.

This is fine until it strays into being misleading and deceptive. Anheuser-Busch has clearly crossed that line by making unsubstantiated health claims designed to mislead consumers.

Unless you’re a craft beer aficionado, the truth is that all beer is pretty much the same. Don’t take this the wrong way. On a hot day, at a Major League Baseball game, at the end of a round of golf or just sitting on your couch watching TV, beer — in moderation — is a fine drink. But honestly, while the big brands may vary in qualities, flavors and calories, the differences aren’t significant.

That’s one reason big industrial beer makers such as Anheuser-Busch spend so much money to advertise at huge events including the Super Bowl. Turning insignificant differences into big ones is critical to winning the market and its bottom line.

In its ads, Anheuser-Busch wants us to believe that its beers are somehow healthier, more nutritious and better for the environment than the competition.

Pure and simple, it’s pseudo-scientific nonsense.

Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Lite ads tell consumers that — unlike the competition — it doesn’t contain corn syrup. Why? They hope consumers have heard just enough about the “corn-troversy” over high-fructose corn syrup (a different substance) to confuse the two.

Let’s think about why corn syrup is even used. It’s so the sugars ferment and transform to alcohol. Bud Lite uses rice syrup for this step of its brewing; its competitors use corn syrup. The sugars ferment out during the brewing process.

But the end result is alcohol, making beer anything but healthy and safe. Alcohol is a well-known carcinogen leading to alcohol-related cancers. And too much alcohol, no matter what its source, can destroy families and lives.

So much for healthy.

It wasn’t just its Bud Lite brand that tried to woo customers this way. Anheuser-Busch’s Michelob Ultra brand rolled out an ad for its Pure Gold beer, bragging about it being organic and pure. Here, too, the company counted on consumer confusion to count in its favor. Many consumers believe organic food is healthier for them. They think “organic” means produced with no pesticides, when in reality it means that the pesticides used are “natural” pesticides, not synthetic. Natural or not, pesticides kill bugs that would attack the crop and therefore have some level of toxicity — in fact, some organic pesticides are more toxic than the ones used in conventional agriculture.

To be certified USDA organic, the product also must be free of genetically modified ingredients, also known as GMOs. Yet food produced using GMO technology is completely safe and nutritionally identical to its counterparts.

Nothing is wrong with eating organic food if you don’t mind paying 10 percent to 30 percent more for it, and you do it knowing there’s no nutritional difference between it and conventional. But that doesn’t mean a company should be given a pass for trying to trick customers into thinking an unhealthy product is actually good for them.

Thankfully, feedback from consumers, farmers and Bud Light’s competitors are causing Bud Light at least to backtrack from its corn syrup high jinx. This lawsuit may go even further. Consumers need to continue to speak out and tell advertisers, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, and the Department of Treasury’s Tax and Trade Bureau that they want their labels to be truthful.