David Manning Trivial Liars of the Month for October 2005

Anheuser-Busch

There is now officially competition for the most transparently disingenuous expression of outrage in American cultural history. The long-time champion, film buffs know, has been Claude Rains' wonderfully corrupt Captain Renaud in "Casablanca," whose statement "I am shocked…shocked!..that gambling is going on in this establishment!" is immediately undercut by an employee's courtly "Your winnings, Captain!" to which Renaud replies, "Thank you very much!" This is a tough act to top, but Anheuser-Busch has submitted a serious contender for the title, good enough to make it the David Manning Trivial Liar of this month, or any other month.

The company has been using a game called "Beer Pong" (dubbed "Bud Pong" in the Anheuser-Busch version) in its national marketing strategy. It is a drinking game, and one that has become suddenly popular in bars near college campuses. There are even special tables manufactured for the game, which isn't exactly chess. Two teams line up on either end of a long table and set up paper cups full of, uh, "liquid." When one team successfully tosses a ball in one of the other team's cups, the other team has to drink the, uh, "liquid" in the cup and remove it. Fun ensues. The last team with cups left wins.

As a story in the New York Times this week explained, Anheuser-Busch had developed Bud Pong kits and sent them to beer wholesalers across the country. The "guidelines" the nation's largest BEER maker included in the kits specified that the DRINKING game called BUD Pong, which is played in BARS, should be played by using cups filled with… water.

This, of course, is like the makers of Q-Tips including instructions that say one should never stick their product in one's ear. (They do, you know!) And similarly motivated: it is a lawyer-dictated wink and nudge to the consumer, who knows well what the real purpose of the product is. But in case some over-enthusiastic Q-Tip user punctures his eardrum or a Bud Pong loser crashes his Mini Cooper in a drunken stupor, the company's obviously phony instructions provide a some legal defense.

Nonetheless, the Q-Tips people have never had the brass to release a press release expressing surprise that individuals were actually using their product to ream out their ears.

However, once the New York Times story exposed Anheuser-Busch's efforts to encourage beer consumption via the drinking game route, the company decided to take the safe and responsible route and stop promoting Bud Pong. But it couldn't bring itself to do so by admitting that it was a bad idea and accepting responsibility. Instead, it had spokeswoman Francine I. Katz release a statement saying "It has come to our attention that despite our explicit guidelines, there may have been instances where this promotion was not carried out in the manner it was intended." Or as Captain Renaud would say, "I'm shocked…shocked!...that people playing Bud Pong named after our beer called Budweiser and promoted by our beer company actually drink beer while playing it!"

There can't be one person anywhere who believes that the makers of Budweiser actually distributed Bud Pong kits thinking that bar patrons would actually play them using water. There can't be one person anywhere who doesn't believe that the makers of Budweiser did this to sell more beer. Yet Anheuser-Busch, knowing this would be the case, nonetheless persisted in saying otherwise.

Sure, it's a defensive move in case some Bud Pong player comes to grief in a beer-addled state and sues the company. But it's also a mind-bendingly transparent lie that nobody will believe and nobody at the company itself can be so naïve as to think anyone will believe. As such, it causes real harm

It causes real harm, like all transparent lies, because it destroys the credibility of Anheuser-Busch and, by extension, corporations in general. After all, if they'll lie about something so obvious, what else are they lying about? After whoppers like this, "everything" isn't an unreasonable answer.

On one level, Anheuser-Busch's transparently dishonest expression of dismay is funny, just like the Captain's in Casablanca. But on another, it is a cause for dismay itself. It shows a large consumer company with little respect for its consumers or the public, willing to foster cynicism and distrust to defuse potential legal liability of its own making. A beer company trying to make us believe that it promoted drinking games designed for water-drinkers is funny, but what it says about Anheuser-Busch isn't funny at all.

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