A recent partnership between prominent transgender influencer Dylan Mulvaney and Bud Light prompted an anti-trans backlash from conservatives. As the LGBTQ+ community and allies have rallied to support Mulvaney, some have criticized Bud Light for not adequately defending her—and for not being more vocal in its support of the community.
Mulvaney partnered with Bud Light earlier this month and made a sponsored Instagram post for the beer that showed a custom can featuring an image of her face. The post was quickly bombarded with hateful comments and threats to boycott the company for featuring her.
Online, criticism has grown over Bud Light’s quiet retreat following the backlash. The incident has prompted further conversation about how companies treat queer representation in their marketing.
Queer—and particularly transgender—representation in advertising has become more common in commercials, billboards, and social media, and activists say the impact can be positive, but the queer community has long advised to be critical of superficial allyship, known as “pinkwashing.”
In advertising, pinkwashing refers to corporations appropriating LGBTQ+ symbolism to promote their brands or products, without committing to support queer equality financially or legally. People online also point out the beer producer’s previous involvement donating to politicians that support anti-lgbtq policies, a classic indicator of pinkwashing. The clash is stark as anti-trans discrimination and legislation persist as a focal point in America’s political culture wars.
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What has Bud Light said?
Mulvaney’s video post showcased Bud Light cans featuring a picture of her face, which the brand sent her as “possibly the best gift ever” to celebrate her “day 365 of womanhood,” she said.
The comments section, though filled with some support, quickly drew in hateful, anti-trans language, with some Instagram users misgendering Mulvaney and calling to #cancelbudlight.
On Friday, Bud Light owner Anheuser-Busch released a public statement on its Instagram page about the company’s history that many criticized for falling short of addressing the harassment Mulvaney faced. In the statement, CEO Brendan Whitworth said, “we never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people. We are in the business of bringing people together over a beer.”
In a statement to TIME, Anheuser-Busch said: “From time to time we produce unique commemorative cans for fans and for brand influencers, like Dylan Mulvaney. This commemorative can was a gift to celebrate a personal milestone and is not for sale to the general public. Anheuser-Busch works with hundreds of influencers across our brands as one of many ways to authentically connect with audiences across various demographics.”
For some activists, Bud Light’s response has not been adequate. “I think that if a company is going to take a stand by being inclusive, in some way, shape, or form—Bud Light for example with Dylan Mulvaney—and there’s backlash that receives attention, the company in an ideal world would respond in a more full-throated way,” Matt Wagner, vice president of client services for Target 10, an LGBTQ+ marketing agency, tells TIME.
“If I were a partner, an influencer or creator of a company or brand that received backlash, largely as a result of my very existence as a human being, I would want that company to stand up for me,” he adds
How have other companies handled similar controversies?
The debate online among the queer community and allies on whether to respect or drop Bud Light has been mixed, but some express disappointment that the beermaker didn’t say more to defend Mulvaney. Just a week after the Bud Light backlash, Mulvaney posted a sponsored Instagram post for her partnership with Nike that received similar response from conservative, anti-trans commenters.
Nike didn’t directly address the controversy, but the athletic brand wrote in an Instagram post that it welcomes “comments that contribute to a positive and constructive discussion: Be kind, be inclusive, encourage each other,” it said. “Hate speech, bullying, or other behaviors that are not in the spirit of a diverse and inclusive community will be deleted.”
Other major brands that have begun featuring trans actors, models and influencers in their ad campaigns include Hershey, Adidas and Pantene, who have been praised for sticking to their choice even in the face of opposition. In a Tweet last month, Hershey said the company values “togetherness” and recognizes “the strength created by diversity.” M&M’s on the other hand, opted to abandon its iconic colorful mascots earlier this year after polarizing backlash to the company’s stylistic tweaks of the characters. (Critics and some advertising experts called the entire M&M’s controversy an elaborate marketing stunt.)
Bob Witeck, president of Witeck Communications, who focuses on communication for brands that further LGBTQ+ advancement, argues that rather than upholding an authentic partnership, Bud Light is acting the same way that many other brands do in the face of controversy—and focusing on its bottom line instead of standing with the LGBTQ+ community. “This is simply an instance when a popular retail brand paid an online influencer—in this instance, Dylan Mulvaney—to tout the product. This is done every day by some brands, especially beer and alcoholic beverages, which do not really take serious stands on social issues or causes,” Witeck tells TIME. “From their POV, it was a simple instance of putting a beer can in the hand of a celebrity.”
How to tell if a company’s response is sincere
Queer activists and groups suggest looking closely into how a company treats queer employees and handles partnerships with the LGBTQ+ community that can help consumers distinguish pinkwashing from true allyship.
For example, looking at the benefits a company offers for same-sex couples or gender-affirming health care, and whether a company has queer employees in executive leaders can be indicative of allyship. Insight into whether a company donates to queer nonprofits and advocacy groups is also a tell-tale sign. “As we get closer to pride season, we will start seeing these pride promotions and pride products. Take a look at the fine print and see is it a 10% donation of all proceeds? Or is it 100%?” Wagner says.
A key indicator of pinkwashing can be companies who hop on pride advertising, but privately donate to political campaigns that support anti-LGBTQ policy. Major brands like Walmart, AT&T, Comcast, and CVS Health publicly celebrate pride, but according to research into their campaign finance documents, they’ve collectively donated millions of dollars to state and federal lawmakers who sponsor legislation like “bathroom bills” that restrict transgender people from using their preferred public bathroom or efforts to limit trans children’s participation in school sports.
Although such information isn’t always publicly available or can be hard to access, Wagner recommends that consumers interested in queer-friendly brands can follow a growing class of activist-influencer-educators, such as Elle Deran, Blair Imani and Matt Bernstein. Creators like these post about queer issues and sometimes share background on why they decide to partner with brands. People can also learn more from visiting queer news and culture sites, such as Queerty, Autostraddle and The Advocate, whose coverage is more focused on queerness than mainstream media tends to be.
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