The maker of Bud Light, Anheuser-Busch, said on Tuesday that two of its executives were taking a leave of absence after the beer was featured in a social media promotion by a transgender influencer.
Bud Light’s sales have slumped amid calls for a boycott because of the advertisement and criticism of the company’s response to the backlash, which included targeted harassment of one of the executives who is on leave.
Alissa Heinerscheid, the vice president of marketing for Bud Light, and Daniel Blake, who oversees marketing for Anheuser-Busch’s mainstream brands, were on leave, the company said in a statement.
“We have made some adjustments to streamline the structure of our marketing function to reduce layers so that our most senior marketers are more closely connected to every aspect of our brands’ activities,” Anheuser-Busch said in a statement. “These steps will help us maintain focus on the things we do best: brewing great beer for all consumers, while always making a positive impact in our communities and on our country.”
The company’s turmoil began on April 1, when a transgender influencer, Dylan Mulvaney, posted a video on her Instagram account to promote a Bud Light March Madness contest to her 1.8 million followers. In her post, which was less than a minute long, she said that the company had sent her a tallboy can of Bud Light with her face on it. An image of the can was edited into the video.
Within days, conservative celebrities and politicians called for a boycott of the brand. These calls were then followed by calls for a reverse boycott, or buycott, encouraging people to buy Bud Light to show support for the marketing.
Brendan Whitworth, the chief executive of Anheuser-Busch InBev, indirectly addressed the controversy in a statement on April 14.
“We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people,” he said. “We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”
This did not subdue the criticisms of Bud Light, which grew to include complaints about its tepid response to the backlash, as well as the targeted harassment of Ms. Heinerscheid.
Critics of the advertisement with Ms. Mulvaney had found a podcast interview from March in which Ms. Heinerscheid said that some of Bud Light’s previous advertisements had “fratty, sort of out-of-touch humor” and that the company would need to be more inclusive for its demographic to grow. As the podcast quotes circulated, The Daily Caller, The New York Post and The Daily Mail published photos of Ms. Heinerscheid at a party in college in 2006.
Ms. Heinerscheid and Mr. Blake could not immediately be reached for comment.
News of the executives’ leaves began circulating after a report about Ms. Heinerscheid on Friday in Beer Business Daily, a trade publication, and another about her superior, Mr. Blake, on Sunday in The Wall Street Journal.
The controversy has had a negative effect on Bud Light’s sales, which dropped 17 percent in the week ending on April 15, Beer Business Daily said.
In the United States, the beer industry is dominated by two large brewers that control 65 percent of beer sales: the Molson Coors Beverage Company, which owns well-known brands including Coors and Miller, and Anheuser-Busch InBev, which also owns Corona and Michelob.
A little more than 20 years ago, beer accounted for about half of alcohol sales in the country. Last year, that market share was about 42 percent, as sales of gin, vodka and other spirits have grown sharply in recent years.
Anheuser-Busch, which has introduced nonalcoholic and canned cocktail drinks, reported that its beer sales in North America fell 4 percent last year.
Bump Williams, who runs an alcoholic beverage consulting firm, said he was becoming concerned that the Bud Light controversy could result in a negative “halo effect” around Anheuser-Busch’s other brands, many of which did see small dips in sales.
Harry Schuhmacher, the publisher of Beer Business Daily, said that as Bud Light sales have fallen, they rose almost dollar for dollar for its competitors Miller Lite and Coors Light.
Mr. Schuhmacher said that the situation was “terrible” in the short-term for Bud Light, but it was likely to have less of an effect on the company’s long-term business because the brand was already in decline. “This just steepens that curve of decline that was already happening,” he said.
He said that the popularity of different beer brands tends to vary by generation and Bud Light is experiencing the slump in that cycle.
“It’s been going on since Prohibition was repealed,” he said. “And brands cycle through about every 20 to 30 years.”
He said that there could be a “silver lining” for the company since the controversy has attracted so much attention from the media.
“They seemingly took a stand although they didn’t really back it up that well,” Mr. Schuhmacher said. “They threw it out there and hid, which I think is unfair to Dylan and unfair to the trans community a little bit.”
The criticism of Bud Light arose as Republican state lawmakers are proposing legislation that seeks to regulate the lives of young transgender people, restrict drag shows in a way that could broadly encompass performances by transgender people, and require schools to out transgender students to their parents.
Ms. Mulvaney has been documenting her transition on TikTok, where she has more than 10.8 million followers. In March, she celebrated one year of her “Days of Girlhood” series.
Anheuser-Busch said earlier this month that it “works with hundreds of influencers across our brands as one of many ways to authentically connect with audiences across various demographics” and gave Ms. Mulvaney a personalized can with her face on it to “celebrate a personal milestone.”
Ms. Mulvaney has not responded to the Bud Light uproar, but she addressed the hostility she has faced in an interview on the “Onward With Rosie O’Donnell” podcast that was released amid the backlash. She is “an easy target,” she said, “because I’m still new to this.”
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