‘Freedom’ on Ice: Budweiser’s Flag-Waving Wears Thin As Freedoms Erode in America

Crguk-Wine

There was a time, not so long ago, when I thought Budweiser’s regular American flag-themed summer rebrand was pretty cool. I wouldn’t say I looked forward to it, per se. But I came to consider the arrival of Stars and Stripes-themed Bud heavies in the supermarket each year as yet another sign that summer had begun in earnest. Did I ever don red, white, and blue board shorts and drunkenly recite Bill Pullman’s speech from “Independence Day” before shotgunning an ice-cold Ameri-can in the living room of a rented beach house? No. Who told you that?

The sun never sets on a badass, as graphic tees in boardwalk knick-knack shops across the country will reliably inform you each summer. (I never owned one of these, honest.) But history has shown us that the sun always sets on an empire, and you don’t have to be a political scientist to notice that the American version is in its twilight these days. A sclerotic gerontocracy, variously incompetent and cruel, serves at the pleasure of billionaires, and stokes an endless culture war with kente cloth photo ops and “Let’s Go Brandon” shitposts. In the name of profit, defense contractors and oil companies march us into pointless wars; hospitals and student-loan firms load us with irrecoverable debt; profiteering landlords both big and small evict us, then call the police because “the homeless” are bringing down property values. Our life expectancy is stagnating, our material conditions are worsening, and the call is coming from inside the house.

Most foreboding to the American experiment: We are incapable of agreeing that these things are bad, or even on the basic goals of that experiment in the first place. That would require some baseline confidence that “we” have more in common than not with “them;” some shared understanding of the United States as an idea. You have only to leave your house to find mountains of anecdotal evidence to the contrary — or hell, just open Twitter. But if you can believe it, the data tells an even graver tale. A January 2022 study published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace found that across 70-plus years and 200-plus  countries, “no other established democracy has become this polarized for this long.” As one of the study’s co-authors told The Atlantic, “For the United States … I am very pessimistic.” Understandable!

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Talk of America’s contemporary political polarization is typically accompanied by mealy-mouthed pleas for civility and bipartisanship. A common colloquial version of this hand-wringing lament is set against the backdrop of the bar. If Democrats and Republicans could simply sit down and have a beer together, the bromide goes, we’d be able to set aside our differences and find common ground together. You may not believe that today, but as recently as 2009, none other than Barack Obama at least pretended to. The then-president summoned Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a Black man, and Sgt. James Crowley, the white police officer who had unceremoniously arrested the scholar in his own home in Cambridge, Mass., to a White House “beer summit” to soothe conservatives red-assed about “reverse racism” because Obama had offhandedly criticized the cop. “I have always believed that what brings us together is stronger than what pulls us apart,” explained the president after the meeting. In other words: beer.

Which brings us, more or less, back to those bunting-bedecked Budweisers. Since 2011, the King of Beers has gussied itself up in Americana-style packaging each Memorial Day to persuade the nation’s drinkers — me included — to patriotically purchase more lager. (A spokesperson for Anheuser-Busch InBev, Budweiser’s parent company, declined my request for an interview about its seasonal rebrand.) Bud is hardly the only beer brand engaged in making over its packaging to celebrate the prime beer-selling weeks between May and August: From Miller Lite and Yuengling to Samuel Adams, and some unknown but surely statistically significant portion of the country’s 9,000-plus craft breweries have regularly turned to U.S. vexillology as a tried-and-true marketing gambit in the modern era. Still, despite decades of sliding sales, and the fact that it is produced by a foreign-owned conglomerate, Budweiser remains tightly linked with the Pax Americana mythos thanks to a sophisticated, aggressive advertising acumen that has elevated the Clydesdales and screaming eagle to de facto national emblems. That elevated stature makes the fact that the brand continues to drape itself in Old Glory culturally significant — all the more so given Budweiser’s own glory has been fading for decades in the American market.

 Budweiser’s flag bearing cans.

The gimmicks vary from year to year, but they always feature lowest-common-denominator markers of mainstream American chauvinism. In 2016, during the acrimonious summer homestretch prior to then-candidate Donald Trump’s eventual election, ABI temporarily rechristened Bud as “America”; in 2018, it introduced a Bud one-off “inspired by George Washington’s hand-penned [lager] recipe”; in 2021, it opted for a minimalist star-spangled aluminum sheath. This year, an eagle with stars in its wings peers fearsomely around the midsection of each jingo-fied can of Budweiser, which is not called Budweiser at all but rather “Freedom.” Below, in sharp block type, the beer can elaborates: “Let It Ring.”

To which I say: ring for whom? The intervening years since Obama’s beer summit — which, like too much of his two terms, was mostly just a tightly managed PR stunt — have not been kind to his aspirations for a coherent American identity. (Nor has the Republican party, which dropped its already-thin veneer of Reagan-era respectability circa 2010 and — over the half-assed objections of feckless Democratic norm-respecters across the aisle — has been dismantling American democracy with ruthless efficiency ever since.) Polling shows that Americans across the U.S. political spectrum share self-defined core values and rising moral tolerance (maybe good?), but also that our trust in major governmental and cultural institutions like the Supreme Court and the media varies widely depending on political outlook (pretty certainly bad!). Apropos of the flag-draped Ameri-can: A March 2021 YouGov/NBCLX poll showed major differences in respondents’ feelings toward our national banner depending on their age, race, and politics. The upshot? The older, whiter, and more Republican you are, the better you feel about a neighborhood full of Stars and Stripes, and vice-versa. And that’s just the data. The vibes around here lately — from the incessant mass shootings and climate-death warnings, to the corporate profiteering and insurrection hearings — are downright horrendous. The rapid-fire barrage of retrograde Supreme Court decisions from Federalist Society flunkeys who’ve been tasked by dark-money GOP masters to foist an ultra-conservative Christian theocracy upon a populace that does not want it? That hasn’t helped.

Into this swirling tempest rolls Freedom (née Budweiser.) A country built on the backs of enslaved people was never destined for a straightforward or homogenous relationship with the concept of freedom, but this is an unusually dicey moment for its debut as a flag-waving, beer-selling schtick — particularly coming from a multinational firm whose political spending and corporate messaging are often on contradicting sides of issues where personal liberty is at stake. To choose one timely example: Earlier this year, independent watchdog newsletter Popular Information reported that Anheuser-Busch donated $15,000 to anti-abortion lawmakers in Idaho, a state whose Republican governor recently signed into law a so-called trigger ban on abortion. With the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe, that law is likely just weeks away from taking effect, robbing more American women of the autonomy to make choices on how to care for their own bodies. An ice-cold Freedom is cold comfort in an age when actual freedom is being put on ice — particularly when it’s sold by a firm using your beer money to help fill the cooler. (ABI did not respond to Popular Information’s request for comment on these donations, and declined to answer my emailed questions about them.)

Even experts with a long view of the American beer business have a bad taste in their mouth after encountering this year’s Bud gambit. “Maybe I’m being paranoid, but for [Budweiser] to use the word ‘freedom’ with the flag … it’s just so loaded,” says historian Maureen Ogle, author of “Ambitious Brew.” I’d called her to get her take on this sort of rally-round-the-flag marketing gambit in the American brewing business. There’s a substantial amount of precedent: In the 19th and early 20th centuries, American brewers spent considerable cash on prominent public displays of loyalty to the country and its Star-Spangled Banner. The fathers of macrobrewing in America funded those campaigns not out of selfless love of country, but self-preservation in the face of the anti-immigrant, pro-suffragette Protestant populism that would eventually coalesce constitutionally as Prohibition. They failed, but thanks to a near-immediate descent into corruption, hypocrisy, and violence, the 18th Amendment failed, too. In the post-Prohibition era, the titans of the U.S. beer business banded together and redoubled their efforts during World War II to pitch their product as a drinkable embodiment of the American spirit. (Conflating American beer with American military might remains good business today. Since 2011, Budweiser has donated nearly $20 million to Folds of Honor, a nonprofit that provides scholarships to spouses and children of U.S. military veterans.)

“The brewers were always very careful to treat the use of beer in the context of ‘it might be alcohol, but by God we’re on the side of right and might here.’ But I am deeply cynical this year’s [rebrand] is anything more than an overt message to people in MAGA world that, you know, we’re on your side,” Ogle tells me. Her recent sighting of a Budweiser truck in Iowa wrapped in pro-police, “Thin Blue Line”-style graphics only drove home the point. (In that YouGov poll, 42 percent of respondents associated the Thin Blue Line flag “more with Republicans,” compared to just 7 percent with Democrats.) A Budweiser spokesperson declined to comment on the anecdote, referring me instead to a 2021 Reuters fact check on similar pro-cop truck graphics after photos of the trucks were shared over 17,000 times on social media last year, which notes that the distributor in that case was independent. For what it’s worth, ABI doesn’t own any distributorships in Iowa, so it’s likely the truck Ogle spotted was also independently owned. Also for what it’s worth: “If you’re a Budweiser distributor, you don’t piss without asking which direction to aim it,” she says.

It seems unlikely to me that ABI was aiming for partisanship with its summer rebrand; if anything, “freedom” was probably deemed so uncontroversial as to be an empty vessel for drinkers across the political landscape to project upon as they see fit. (Contrast Budweiser’s rebrand with the overtly partisan marketing of We the People Wines and other firms intentionally choosing sides in the culture war, and you’ll see what I mean.) But therein lies the rub of the company’s anodyne, flag-first marketing in this contentious American moment: Pandering to an idealized American center is only a safe bet when there are still people in the center to pander to. Obama’s “beer summit” was decently well received by the mainstream media at the time; would it be today? “If you had asked me this question 10 years ago, I’m sure I would have given you a really different answer,” Ogle tells me. The national identity has only fractured since then — a problem for a brand like the King of Beers that relies on a coherent, recognizable American middle to reflect back at itself. Shatter the monoculture, and watch the monarch flail.

“Ideally, the flag is supposed to stand for everybody,” says Scot Guenter, a recently retired professor of American studies at San Jose State University and past president of the North American Vexillological Association. “But people have to be raised in a culture of the flag, you’re not born with it.” In other words, flags evolve over time and context as different groups develop and reproduce culture around them, which Guenter calls “civil religion.” At least since 2001, Republicans have been preaching their religion with more success. “Traditionally, conservatives have claimed the flag, and liberals have come up with interesting ways to try to take it back,” Guenter tells me. “We can’t all agree what America means, right? That’s why I say it’s a constant battle of capture the flag. That never stops.”

Why would a commercial operation — particularly one as savvy as ABI — risk inserting its once-proud flagship into such a battle? It’s possible that enough of the drinking public still does ride the fabled fence of American centrism to make this rebranding ritual a genuine sales success, though I genuinely doubt it. In the absence of definitive answers from the firm itself, I’ve got a theory. Maybe the company is giving up on the hope that it’ll ever win over younger drinkers again, and the jingoism provides a seasonal shot in the arm among nostalgic boomers and graying millennial bro-dads. Maybe the summer patriotification is popular with distributors and retailers for Independence Day tie-ins; maybe it’s a source of internal morale on account of its charitable component. Maybe it’s some combination of all those factors, plus one more: Budweiser is simply hoping that this is the summer that drinkers like me stop paying attention to the country’s ongoing decay, and just enjoy the fireworks. A few years ago, maybe I would have.

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