Friday, June 26, 2015

Bud Light Is Not a Beer

This is not about whether or not Bud Light was ever beer. This is not a shot at bland, tasteless corporate lagers. Let's stipulate that AB InBev is a brewer and makes beer. For purposes of this exposition, Budweiser is a beer, Beck's is a beer, Stella Artois is a beer, Brahma is a beer. (Those are all AB InBev brands.)

Yes, it says 'beer' right there on the label, but Bud Light is not a beer. Furthermore, 'Light' is not a promise of low calorie refreshment.

If Bud Light is not a beer, then what is it?

Bud Light is a brand.

The product in the picture, that Bud Light product happens to be a beer. It contains 110 calories per 12 ounces, about what you would expect from a light beer. But Bud Light Lime-a-Rita contains 220 calories per 8 ounces. That's 27.5 calories per ounce for the Rita compared to 9.2 calories per ounce for the beer. That's three times as many calories! The new Bud Light Mixxtail products -- Firewalker, Hurricane, Long Island Iced Tea -- they're 195 calories per 8 ounces.

In December, Sheila Cruz filed a lawsuit against Anheuser-Busch. She alleges that Bud Light Lime-A-Rita products claim to be low in calories, but actually contain more calories than any other product sold by Anheuser-Busch.

The lawsuit, which alleges that Anheuser-Busch deceptively concealed, omitted and misrepresented the calories in the products, seeks class status for anyone who has purchased any of the Bud Light Rita products since they were introduced in 2008. There are now six Rita flavors.

Start saving your receipts.

Anheuser-Busch has filed a motion to dismiss. It argues that every label at issue “accurately discloses” the average number of calories and carbohydrates that the products contain, as required by the U.S. Treasury’s Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau, or TTB.

Let's pause here to explain why this story is in this column, where we talk about bourbon whiskey. Things like this would not happen if everyone would just drink bourbon whiskey as God intended, but that is neither here nor there, because some people do drink this stuff.

This story should matter to people who read this column for two reasons. First, the attorneys for Ms. Cruz argue that Anheuser-Busch is claiming 'safe harbor' because TTB approved their labels. This is the same claim Templeton, Tito's and other spirit brands have made in similar cases. That argument will be rejected. It already has been in a similar Florida case against Anheuser-Busch. The courts realize that TTB does not investigate or scrutinize label approval applications with sufficient diligence to warrant safe harbor protection.

However, Anheuser-Busch also argues that “The TTB has determined that the use of the term ‘light’ on a malt beverage label is not misleading or deceptive as long as the label contains a statement of average analysis disclosing the actual number of calories, carbohydrates, protein and fat the product contains. The labels at issue here complied with this TTB requirement."

In other words, it's not 'safe harbor,' but if your label complies with all of the rules, and discloses all pertinent information in the prescribed fashion, you should be okay. Remember that when you think about cheating on the state of distillation requirement, or the accurate age statement requirement.

The other reason this should matter to regular readers of this column is that this is the natural trajectory of a brand and every brand owner, whether he or she will admit it or not, dreams of this outcome. Not the lawsuit, but ownership of a brand that has reached the point where you can slap it on just about anything and people will buy it. Bud Light Triple Cheeseburger, anyone?

At this point 'Bud Light' is not a descriptive statement. The 'Light' part doesn't mean low in calories. Bud Light no longer means 'a lower calorie version of Budweiser,' as it did at one time. No, Bud Light has transcended its original meaning. Bud Light has become a brand.

How many products now bear the Jim Beam or Jack Daniel's brand name? Lots of different whiskey expressions as well as flavored whiskeys, pre-mixed cocktails, food, clothing. Too many to count with no end in sight.

Legally, all of these 'false advertising' cases will fail unless they hinge on actual deception. A subjective misinterpretation of vague 'claims' won't get very far. Templeton Rye, for example, may still have to answer for its past transgressions but, what do you know, it has a new label. It now says 'distilled in Indiana' and qualifies the 'Prohibition-Era Recipe' claim, among other things.

Will it be enough? That's up to the courts to decide. But if you're a fledgling spirits producer, you don't want to be next.

NOTE 6/30/15: I have since learned that the court dismissed this case on June 3rd and granted safe harbor protection. The distinction between this ruling and what I was talking about above is that, in fact, the Bud Light Lime-a-Rita labels comply with all TTB rules. I predict safe harbor will not be granted to Templeton because, even though their labels were approved, they did not comply with all TTB rules. The decision is here.


Anonymous said...

I am curious about what you mean by the reference to jim beam or JD. To take jack for example, no one expect a bar towel with the brand on it to have Jack Daniels Whiskey in it, so lets keep with the beverage/food items. I am under the impression (I do not have any info right at hand) that all the JD beverages (country cocktails, JD and cola, Tennessee fire, etc) all have actual Jack Daniels whiskey as a "primary" ingredient (ie: no other alcohol added).

Is this true?


Chuck Cowdery said...

I will concede that promotional items -- giveaway caps or t-shirts with the logo on them -- are not brand extensions. However, a $50 belt buckle is. The brand is generating additional revenue and that is what strong brands can do.

As for the foods containing actual Jack or Jim whiskey, some do and some don't but it's never a 'primary' ingredient. I am looking at a jar of Jack Daniel's Gourmet Mustard. It contains no Jack Daniel's whiskey whatsoever.

Anonymous said...

But remember, Beck's is not an import beer either.

Chuck Cowdery said...

I never said it was. I said it was a beer.

Anonymous said...

Bud light tastes like the condensation that forms on the outside of a cold Labbats Blue on a warm summer day.

Anonymous said...

Sorry, Chuck. Was not clear. Posted the URL as another example of lawsuits in the industry over such topics. The article points out that Beck's, Foster's and Red Stripe sold in the US, all which one 'might' assume are imports, are actually brewed in the US. Since this was not stated in big letters on the bottle someone decided to sue.

Doctor Tarr said...

I did some calorie checking, and Bud Light Lime-a-Rita has about the same as a Frosty from Wendy's and about two-and-a-half times that of Coca-Cola.

Their brand extension claim would carry more weight if the "Light" in the original "Bud Light" didn't mean "lower calories".

I don't know if they currently do, but Brown Forman has sold Jack Daniels branded flavored beers that had no whiskey in them at all. There are also bee Smirnoff and Bacardi branded flavored beers.

Erik Fish said...

On the one hand, this development is annoying as it detracts from the "purity" of a label.

On the other hand, annoying is really all it is. As long as the label doesn't claim that Jack Daniel's chewing gum or whatever contains whiskey, people ought to be smart enough to deal with it. If it helps Brown-Forman maintain a healthy bottom line, I have no objections.

After all, Paul Newman's salad dressings never had anything to do with movies either. But his reputation as an actor seems to have survived "Newman's Own" just fine.

David Meier said...

I have many similar examples related to "whiskey" made in the US. With the relatively recent influx of "clear" or "white" whiskey the TTB was caught off guard and let some labels through that were according the the rules incorrect. But we all know that the government can never be wrong...
According to the law "whisky must have the taste, aroma, and characteristics generally attributed to whisky" (note the TTB does not use the E in the spelling). Translation- it must have a brownish color and it has to have some smell of wood, but according to a real live human at the TTB "It has to touch oak". So then we have to go to the other rules that state if it "touches oak" for less than 4 years there must be an age statement declaring the age of the youngest whiskey in the bottle. MANY labels got through with vague statements such as "Aged less than 4 years" but not TTB has closed that loophole and it must state "Aged at least" or something similar.

So if that is the case how can there be "white dog," "white whiskey," or "new make" or even "moonshine" on a label? Well according to TTB if it is your BRAND name then it is acceptable. But get can not have the term "White" on the same line as "Whiskey" because white is a description and whiskey is the class of alcohol which must be stated on the label! NONE of the terms I listed above are LEGALLY recognized by the TTB as a Class of alcoholic beverage. There is NO SUCH THING as a "white" whiskey!

I tried to call our new make "Unaged Whiskey" and was turned down because there is NO SUCH THING as unaged whiskey! Now the rule is I can let it touch oak for 1 second and qualify, but there must be an age statement. Jim Beam's Jacob's Ghost is the ONLY ONE I have seen that follows the rule. I can find 40 or more products that are mislabeled on the shelf. BUT they are acceptable to TTB because the term used is the "brand" name.

So to your point the term "light" when used with any product has no meaning. MAYBE it means fewer calories than the "regular" but the 'a rita products do not have a Bud 'a rita equivalent so how can you compare?

The thing is that if you provide the "perception" of something most people will fall for it and never be the wiser. Just clever marketing or deceptive? The TTB makes it clear that NO misleading information be on the labels, but I can tell you there is plenty and is not leading to an accurate understanding of what is in the bottle!