There’s been a lot of coverage in the last week of the impact of the political landscape on much of this year’s Superbowl advertising.
The Budweiser TVC ‘Born the Hard Way’ has been much discussed. It dramatises the arrival in the US of Adolphus Busch and his meeting with business partner, Eberhard Anheuser.
Most of the debate focuses on the bravery/foolhardiness of Budweiser in taking a political stance in this climate. (The company has been at pains to point out that the ad wasn’t made in direct response to Trump’s proposed immigration actions.) But in taking such an overt, and positive, immigration stance, Budweiser is responding in some way to the political climate, if not specifically to the most recent Executive Order.
Of course there’s nothing wrong with that. Many applaud a brand taking a strong POV on an issue (while many others don’t applaud and call for a boycott of the product instead).
What interests me is the fact that the origin story Budweiser is telling isn’t true. It’s a fictionalised version of the story. It’s sort of the truth, but it’s not actually true. That makes it at best an embellishment, at worst a lie, but unquestionably inauthentic.
Adolphus Busch was part of a wealthy German family. He emigrated to the US with three of his brothers. He didn’t run into his business partner, Eberhard Anheuser, in a bar. He sold him brewing supplies (and later married his daughter). And he didn’t conceive the original Budweiser - as depicted in the ad - his friend Carl Conrad did. Anheuser Busch acquired it in the 1880s (as payment for a debt due to bankruptcy and well after the depiction of Adolphus Busch’s arrival in 1857).
That seems to me a problem. I get why people like it. It’s a nicely executed story that pits a brave brand against a cowardly attitude. It’s an attractive point of view - a celebration of hard work, the warm embrace of progressive people and a country that might learn from its past. But it’s not true, and authenticity seem to me to be a pretty binary concept. As in, it is or it isn’t.
I get the irony of someone from an advertising background complaining about something being made up. Very obviously, the overwhelming majority of advertising is. But that’s only a problem when we give every impression that something is true, while knowing that it’s not. When we celebrate something for being authentic, while knowing full-well that’s not the case.
I’ve raised this observation with a few people. The general response is that I’m over-reacting, that the brand has embellished the story in the interests of making their point. They say it’s the principle that matters and the embellishment simply allows for the most engaging story. But that’s exactly what this is responding to - a growing political sentiment that seeks to vilify and exclude immigrants based on selectively sharing facts and lying about specific examples for effect.
I applaud Budweiser for looking at an issue and deciding that as a business founded by an immigrant with a dream and commitment to hard work that they could share a valuable and inspiring perspective. I applaud them for choosing to take on the issue, knowing that in so doing they risk alienating many. But I struggle with choosing to re-write their own history in the process, even if the justification is that the embellishment is only minor and story remains mostly true. Producing something beautiful but not true makes this a nice lie battling an ugly lie. Which means it’s still a lie, and, by definition, not authentic.
And being inauthentic, surely, is a problem for the brand?