(The Hill) — Bud Light has been locked for months in a contentious dispute with its consumer base over a brief partnership with transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney that has cost the brand and its parent company, Anheuser-Busch, billions in market value.
The brewing giant this week said it plans to lay off hundreds of U.S. corporate employees in an announcement that was celebrated by conservative leaders who have voiced opposition to Bud Light’s partnership with Mulvaney and the expansion of transgender rights more broadly. The company did not mention Mulvaney or the ongoing controversy in its announcement.
Mulvaney, a transgender influencer who has shared her transition journey with followers online, in April shared a sponsored post to her Instagram page promoting Bud Light’s annual March Madness sweepstakes, kicking off a deluge of conservative criticism over the company’s partnership with an openly transgender woman.
Right-wing celebrities, media personalities and even politicians responded to Mulvaney’s post by uploading videos of themselves destroying cases of Bud Light to social media and calling for a nationwide boycott of the beer, which had at that point enjoyed a 22-year reign as the nation’s best-selling beer.
Conservative pundit Ben Shapiro decried Bud Light’s partnership with Mulvaney during an April 3 episode of his radio show, repeatedly misgendering Mulvaney and telling his listeners that they are being “forced to consume” products from companies including Anheuser-Busch that believe “men are women and women are men.”
The same day, singer-songwriter Kid Rock in a video posted to Instagram and X, the platform formerly known as Twitter, shot four cases of Bud Light with what appeared to be a semi-automatic rifle.
“F— Bud Light and f— Anheuser-Busch,” he said in the video, which has been viewed more than 53 million times on X and more than 1.8 million times on Instagram.
In an April 5 statement on X, country music star Travis Tritt said all Anheuser-Busch products would be removed from his upcoming tour. “I know many other artists who are doing the same,” he said.
Other conservative figures publicly mischaracterized the brand’s brief partnership with Mulvaney – which consisted of a single 50-second Instagram video and an Instagram story post that disappeared after 24 hours – as a much larger marketing campaign meant to make both Bud Light and Mulvaney money.
The brand as part of the partnership also sent Mulvaney a custom Bud Light can with an illustration of her face on it, which was not commercially available.
Sales of Bud Light have dipped substantially since April, in part because of the backlash but also because beer has been steadily losing market share for the better part of the last decade (from 2011 to 2021, Anheuser-Busch fell from 46.9% of the market to 38.6%).
Bud Light was unseated by Mexico’s Modelo Especial as the nation’s best-selling beer in May, with sales down nearly 25% from one year ago.
While it’s likely neither Bud Light nor Mulvaney anticipated the scale of the backlash or the financial fallout, the response from conservatives is not entirely unprecedented. The catchphrase “Go Woke, Go Broke” has been used in right-wing circles since at least 2018 to criticize corporations that align themselves with progressive causes.
Conservatives last year threatened to boycott Disney after the company spoke out publicly against Florida’s Parental Rights in Education bill – known to its critics as the “Don’t Say Gay” bill for its heavy restrictions on talk of sexual orientation and gender identity in public school classrooms.
In June, similar outrage was directed at retail giants Target and Kohl’s for selling LGBTQ Pride-themed merchandise. The British footwear company Dr. Martens this week received conservative backlash for sharing an Instagram photo of a pair of boots painted with an illustration that showed a person with top surgery scars.
Transgender rights have also in recent years become a focal point of conservative politics in the U.S. This year alone, 566 bills targeting transgender Americans were introduced in 49 states, most of them by Republicans, who in a Pew Research Center poll conducted last year were most likely to say society has “gone too far” in accepting transgender people.
Two weeks after Mulvaney’s Instagram post, Anheuser-Busch CEO Brian Whitworth responded to the backlash with a written statement that distanced the company from the influencer.
“We never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people,” Whitworth wrote in the April 14 statement, which does not mention Mulvaney or the backlash outright. “We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”
The same day, Bud Light’s social media accounts posted for the first time since the controversy began, opening the floodgates to users determined to make their position on the company’s partnership with Mulvaney known. A simple “TGIF?” tweet garnered more than 33,000 replies, many of them referencing Mulvaney. The post has been viewed more than 12.5 million times.
In addition to conservative critics, those who support Bud Light’s partnership with Mulvaney and transgender rights more broadly have also played a role in the beverage’s fall from grace.
Virtually all sides in the debate have criticized Anheuser-Busch’s relatively tepid response to the backlash as insufficient for not taking a firm stance either way.
The Human Rights Campaign, the nation’s largest LGBTQ civil rights group, in May suspended its benchmark equality and inclusion rating for Anheuser-Busch, citing the company’s handling of the backlash. The previous month, the organization, in a letter to an Anheuser-Busch executive, admonished the company’s lukewarm response, including Whitworth’s April 14 statement.
“In this moment, it is absolutely critical for Anheuser-Busch to stand in solidarity with Dylan and the trans community,” the letter said.
Anheuser-Busch since sales began falling in April has attempted to court both liberals and conservatives to recoup some of its losses. In June, the company aired a series of television ads leaning into football and country music – themes that resonate with conservatives.
Also in June, Anheuser-Busch told the Daily Beast it is “committed to the programs and partnerships we have forged over decades with organizations across a number of communities, including those in the LGBTQ+ community.”
Still, sales of Bud Light remain soft. For the four weeks ending July 1, Modelo Especial captured 8.7% of overall beer sales, compared to Bud Light’s 7% share, CNN reported last month.
For her part, Mulvaney has remained relatively quiet on the issue, absent the handful of mental health updates she’s shared with her followers since April. She explicitly addressed the ongoing controversy in a June TikTok video that criticized Bud Light and Anheuser-Busch’s failure to publicly support her and the transgender community at large in the face of a widespread hate campaign.
“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,” Mulvaney said. “And the hate doesn’t end with me. It has serious and grave consequences for our community.”
“To turn a blind eye and pretend everything is OK, it just isn’t an option right now,” she added.