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  • Writer's pictureJeff Eaker

The Bernbach Principle. How Bud Light earned the title of gayest beer in America.

The quote: "A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money" was originally said by Bill Bernbach.

In 1964, after the U.S. Surgeon General issued a warning about cigarette smoking, Bill Bernbach vowed to keep his agency out of the cigarette business. Which, in those days, was one of the most profitable categories in advertising. The decision cost DDB a lot of money, but he stood by it.


The best job I ever had, bar none, was in my last semester at the University of Texas. That’s when I was selected to be a Coors Light Campus Representative.

Here’s what the job entailed. I was to take as many friends out to the bars as I could, as often as possible. My job was to pay for everyone’s beer (provided it was Coors Light, of course). Keep the receipts. And every week I would be re-imbursed for the beer and paid $6.50 an hour for my efforts.

Tell me a better job than that. Go ahead. Think on it for a while. Let me know what you come up with.

We went out every night. It was a damn good semester. This was before micro-brew had really hit the market. So, in those days, when you went into a bar you pretty much chose between Budweiser, Coors, Lone Star, Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light. Since all those beers are pretty shitty and basically taste the same, the thinking was that when people walked into a bar they tended to order what they saw other people drinking. And they were right. It was a really simple tactic, but it worked like gang-busters.

I don’t drink shitty beer anymore. In fact, I don’t always drink beer, but when I do I prefer Bell’s Two-Hearted. Sorry, couldn’t resist.

I always say advertising is like a sport to me. I follow the names, the brands and the work like most people follow their favorite sports teams. But advertising is also like sports in that it has seasons. As a cosumer you probably know them well.

There’s holiday season where brands are wishing you well from their family to yours. There’s Superbowl season, of course, where brands shell out big bucks to actually make great ads that people enjoy. There’s back to school season. Pumpkin-spice season. End of year clearance season. And, as we just wrapped up, there’s Pride month. I’ve asked my fairy godmother to make it called gay season, but haven’t heard back yet.

The first major brand to run an ad targeting the LGBTQ+ community was Absolut Vodka in 1981. Soon, other brands followed. Benneton got their gay on in a big way in 1991 with their Colors of Benneton campaign featuring an ad with a bi-racial lesbian couple and their adopted child. For their efforts, Benneton received death threats and boycotts.

IKEA "went there" in 1996 with a commercial featuring an openly gay couple shopping for furniture. While I’m sure the couple’s taste was fabulous, it wasn’t fabulous enough to appease the conservative religious groups (with notoriously bad taste in furniture) who responded with wide-scale boycotts. One store in Hicksville, New York (that joke writes itself) was evacuated after a bomb threat resulting from the backlash.

The 2015 Supreme Court ruling on marriage equality proved significant for LGBTQ+ representation in advertising. In 2018, Gillete, which I’ll remind you is the best a man can get, ran an ad featuring a father teaching his transgender son how to shave. And Verizon’s Love Calls Back campaign featured reunion phone calls between LGBTQ+ individuals and their families.

So, if we look at Bill Bernbach’s original quote: "A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money" —it would only make sense to argue that Absolut, Benneton and IKEA are some of the most principled brands in advertising when it comes to supporting the LGBTQ+ community. Those ads must have cost those brands a shit-load in lost sales, brand boycotts and bad press. And let’s not forget the bomb threats in Hicksville. Those hicks must’ve been terrified.

But let’s put our marketing hats on for a moment. Mine has a feather. Here’s the deal. After 25 years in advertising, I’ve never worked on any sort of cause-related ad where the goal wasn’t to sell more products. Brands don’t care about people being gay or trans or whatever. They care about selling more products and the LGBTQ+ market is a valuable one. So, to say that even pioneer brands like Absolut, Benneton and IKEA were supporting the community might be less accurate than to instead say, they were targeting it. They want dollar bills and trust me when I say that brands don’t give a shit about what those dollar bills identify as.

Which brings us to Bud Light and their stellar performance this year during Pride Month. Again we turn to the words of Bill Bernbach: "A principle isn’t a principle until it costs you money." Under that paradigm, they absolutely killed it. Bud Light showed its principles to the tune of $20 billion dollars in lost sales and marketing costs due to the tremendous backlash from conservative groups and right-wing consumers with really shitty taste in beer.

If you ask me, $20 billion is a lot of principle. So in my mind, those Bud Light people are pretty damn dedicated to the rights of folks who just want to be treated fairly in the marketplace. Which is why I think I’ll pick up a sixer on my way home tonight. Put on some Barbara Streisand. And raise a glass of Bell's Two-Hearted to the gayest beer in America.

Enchanté, Bud Light. Keep fighting the good fight.

Thanks for reading. I'll see you again real soon.

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