Super Bowl ads for beer, once one of Madison Avenue’s simplest bits of pitchery, have become as complex as solving a calculus equation after five shots of Jägermeister.
Opening a cold one at the Super Bowl used to be easy. Since 1989, brewing giant Anheuser-Busch InBev has enjoyed exclusive rights to market malt-based liquor during the Big Game. Fans came to the event expecting to see sophomoric humor from Bud Light and inspirational messages and stately Clydesdale horses from Budweiser. In 2023, any beer maker can take to the field.
Anheuser-Busch InBev’s decision to cede its rights last year and open the Super Bowl to rivals goosed “additional interest in both traditional beer and spirits commercials,” Mark Evans, executive vice president of sales for Fox Sports, tells Variety. “We will see multiple, different brands throughout the game.”
Super Bowl viewers may not understand just how crowded the bar will get this weekend, but by the time the Kansas City Chiefs and the Philadelphia Eagles wrap play on Sunday, Feb. 12, they will. Bud Light, Michelob Ultra and Busch Light will have run commercials that may be very different from prior Big Game norms, and will have to fend off challenges from rivals like Molson Coors, Heineken, Diageo’s Crown Royal Whiskey and cognac distributor Remy Cointreau. Meanwhile, Budweiser, a Super Bowl regular, is taking its message to viewers in just 14 regional markets, with ads placed on local commercial inventory on stations showing the football event. When it does, it may have to vie with similar ads from Boston Beer Co., maker of Sam Adams, which is running local spots in six different markets.
Perhaps beer advertising in the Super Bowl needed a shake up. Anheuser-Busch’s in-game work has been undermined over the past several years by rivals rushing to snap up local time across the country—or test any number of clever stunts. Anna Kendrick made an intriguing splash in 2014 when she took part in an “ambush” online ad for Heineken’s Newcastle Brown Ale around Super Bowl XLVIII that could not appear in the game itself. Diageo in 2021 teamed up with football great Joe Montana to tout Guinness in a 60-second ad seen only in three parts of the country during the Super Bowl. Even Anheuser-Busch gave up some of its singular hold on the Big Game—at least intellectually—in 2019, when Bud Light ran Super Bowl ads talking about how rivals Coors Light and Miller Lite used corn syrup. The owner of the two beers—then known as MillerCoors—kept the debate alive by suing its competitor over allegations of false advertising.
There’s still plenty of froth when it comes to beer in the Super Bowl. Advertisers put $44.6 million last year behind beer and wine ads in the Super Bowl, according to Vivvix, a tracker of ad spending, compared with $52.2 million in 2021. In recent years, however, autos and streamers have put more cash into the game to tout their goods than the brewing bunch.
The Super Bowl is perhaps traditional media’s biggest mass-audience event, drawing tens of millions of viewers in a single period. YouTube and Netflix would love to boast of being able to draw a crowd of similar size all at once to a single piece of content. And yet, in a world where consumers have splintered among dozens of video outlets and hundreds of content choices, Madison Avenue has recalibrated its outreach by creating commercials meant for smaller groups. That has been exacerbated further by growing consumer interest in alcoholic beverages other than mainstream beer. Younger buyers enjoy everything from bourbon to hard seltzer to craft beers with increasing frequency.
With all that in mind, why pop a beer bottle at the Super Bowl, hoping that the spray will hit some portion of the crowd, when you can serve a glass to the people most likely to be interested in what you’re brewing?
“We are synonymous with the Super Bowl,” Kristina Punwani, the executive who heads up marketing for Budweiser, tells Variety. “We will always have a role in this moment in culture.”
“Consumers expect something from us,” she adds, but notes: “We want to make sure we deliver that and do that to the right consumer bases.”
To be sure, some beer brands want to speak to everyone all at once. “We really think of this as a once-in-a-lifetime moment,” says Michelle St. Jacques, Molson Coors’ chief marketing officer. “It’s 30 seconds after 30 years” of not being able to appear in the game due to Anheuser-Busch’s blockade.
Molson Coors is making the most of its in-game purchase. The company sought to generate interest a few weeks ahead of Super Bowl LVII with a full-page ad in The New York Times asking readers which of its two biggest brands—Coors Light or Miller Lite—should advertise in the game. And the company even linked up with online-betting giant DraftKings to give consumers part of a $500,000 prize pool for predicting what will be in Molson Coors’ Super Bowl ad.
“We have always thought of the Super Bowl not as a moment, but as a season,” says St. Jacques. “We are thinking about the different beats of how we can hopefully captivate consumers and drinkers.”
Marketing chiefs at Anheuser-Busch appear to have targets that extend beyond the viewership of the Super Bowl. Busch Light, for example, hopes to capture attention with a spot that uses musician Sarah McLachlan to comic effect. But executives also have an eye on activity throughout the rest of the year. “We are still the biggest spender at the Super Bowl, but the thing I really want to call attention to is that the Super Bowl is just one day on the calendar,” says Krystyn Stowe, the Anheuser-Busch InBev executive who oversees U.S. marketing for its Busch line. “Busch Light is cranking every single day.”
They also have an eye on luring younger viewers—including the kind who don’t watch TV in traditional ways. Bud Light has long been known for Super Bowl ads sporting frat-boy antics, such as one in which a group of young men bow down to a “magic fridge” full of beer. In 2023, a man and a woman in a new Bud Light commercial crack open a few as they dance to eerily catchy hold music from a smartphone. It’s a nod, says Alissa Heinerscheid, vice president of marketing for Bud Light, to the broader crowd of over-21 drinkers the company wants to attract.
The Super Bowl can help get the word about Bud Light’s shift in attitude, she says, but she also needs to keep talking to potential customers for the rest of the year. “Yes, I want to use this giant platform to signal to consumers this change, this new era,” says Heinerscheid. “And then, I gotta prioritize the rest of the year. I gotta connect with consumers all year long. We have a couple of jobs to do, you know.”
When rivals can find ways to tread on exclusive Super Bowl rights, the money that secures them might be better used for other promotions. After viewers see all the Super Bowl ads for beer, which ones will they remember? For the advertisers, answering that question will be the last call.