Anheuser-Busch, which has been needling MillerCoors in a marketing campaign the rival brewer says is false and deceptive, must not declare on future packaging that its beer contains “no corn syrup,” a judge ordered Wednesday.
The ruling marks another victory for MillerCoors in its contention that Anheuser-Busch has tried intentionally to mislead consumers into thinking they are drinking corn syrup when they down a Miller Lite or Coors Light.
Now playing out in federal court, the fracas began unfolding during the 2019 Super Bowl, when Anheuser-Busch launched a multi-million-dollar marketing effort humorously cloaked in medieval imagery and suggesting that the MillerCoors brews, unlike Bud Light, contain corn syrup.
MillerCoors sued in March in U.S. District Court in Madison, alleging that the ads were false and part of a plot to play on the concerns of some consumers about corn syrup to frighten drinkers of Miller Lite and Coors Light into dumping their customary brews in favor of Bud Light.
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MillerCoors argued that it uses corn syrup as a fermentation aid, but that it turns to alcohol in the final product. Further, the company said, the ordinary corn syrup it uses in the brewing process is different from the high-fructose corn syrup found in soft drinks and regarded by some people as a health risk.
In May, U.S. District Judge William Conley issued a preliminary injunction temporarily barring Anheuser-Busch from using the words corn syrup in ads and on social media without providing more context. The firm, for example, is not to describe corn syrup as an ingredient “in” the finished MillerCoors products. Nor is it to say that Bud Light contains “100% less corn syrup.”
On Wednesday, the judge extended the preliminary ban to Anheuser-Busch’s packaging. He ruled that after the brewer exhausts the stock of packaging it had on hand as of June 6 – about 70 million packages worth roughly $28 million – it must no longer use the “no corn syrup” phrase or icon on its packaging.
Conley also described Anheuser-Busch’s marketing efforts as misleading. That description came as the judge, in his order, noted that while the packaging in question doesn’t specifically mention Miller Lite or Coors Light, it should be viewed in the context of the full advertising campaign.
With Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light representing almost 100% of light beer sales, a reasonable jury could find that “a substantial segment of consumers would infer that Bud Light’s principal competitors contain corn syrup, especially after a $100 million dollar television and print campaign misleadingly suggesting the same thing,” Conley said.
“Today’s ruling is another victory for MillerCoors, but more importantly it is another victory for the American public against deceptive advertising like Bud Light’s,” MillerCoors CEO Gavin Hattersley said in a statement. “Bud Light’s campaign was bad for the public, bad for the industry and against the law. With this ruling, we are holding Bud Light accountable for its actions, and we will keep holding their feet to the fire every time they intentionally mislead the American public.”
Anheuser-Busch, meanwhile, signaled that it would continue to press its case.
“Bud Light is brewed with no corn syrup – plain and simple,” a company spokesperson said in a statement. “We look forward to defending our right to inform beer drinkers of this fact at trial and on appeal. MillerCoors is resisting consumer demands for transparency in the ingredients used to brew its beers, but those demands are here to stay. We will continue leading this movement in the beer industry.”
Follow Rick Romell on Twitter: @RickRomell.