One of the biggest sponsors of the National Football League’s flagship event, the Super Bowl, said Tuesday it was “concerned” about the league’s handling of recent controversies involving two popular players, a signal that ad support for one of the nation’s most valuable media properties may be in danger of eroding.
“We are disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season,” global brewer Anheuser-Busch InBev said in a statement. “We are not yet satisfied with the league’s handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and code. We have shared our concerns and expectations with the league.” Anheuser is also the official beer sponsor of the NFL’s regular season.
The NFL has been roiled in recent weeks by disclosures that it may have known more about former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice’s March assault on a woman he ha since married than its top official, Roger Goodell, has let on. New revelations about child-abuse allegations leveled against Minnesota Vikings player Adrian Peterson have only fueled the view that the NFL has willfully ignored violent behavior by is players. CBS, which paid a reported $250 million to $300 million to broadcast eight Thursday-night football games this season, has made changes to its presentation of the contest for each of the two weeks they have been on the air, eliminating or temporarily pulling music and comedy segments in favor of a more serious tone.
Along with PepsiCo., Anheuser has been one of the staunchest supporters of the Super Bowl, typically buying multiple ads each year at a cost of millions of dollars – $149 million, to be exact, since 2009. The brewer bought four minutes of ad time in Fox’s 2014 broadcast of the event, according to Kantar Media, a tracker of ad spending, in support of popular beverages like Budweiser and Bud Light.
To be certain, Anheuser-Busch may be trying to have its suds and drink them, too. A statement of concern is not the same thing as pulling advertising in support of an event, and ad buyers have indicated that NBC has sold a good portion of its coming 2015 broadcast of Super Bowl XLIX.
But a sour note from this large advertiser often perks up ears on Madison Avenue. In 2004, after CBS got into hot water with a Super Bowl broadcast that included a halftime show in which Janet Jackson bared part of her breast, the brewer’s president, August Busch, told attendees at an advertising-industry conference that the company would be taking “a more cautious approach” to its advertising. A-B spots at the time included such gimmicks as a dog biting a man’s crotch and a flatulent horse ruining a couple’s romantic carriage ride.
At the time, Anheuser was still run by the family that founded it. These days, it is a global operation, and sells Beck’s, Rolling Rock and Boddington’s in addition to Michelob and its ever-present Bud line.
There is chatter that the company could get even bigger, which, if its concerns about the NFL continue to linger, might cause the league additional concern. Anheuser-Busch InBev has recently explored the idea of securing financing to make a run for rival SABMiller, the brewer of Miller Lite, Milwaukee’s Best and Grolsch. among others. A merger of two massive brewers would consolidate a large number of potential malt-liquor advertisers for NFL games under one corporate umbrella.
Could Anheuser-Busch truly afford to reduce exposure of its advertising to football fans? It’s a question neither the brewer nor the NFL are likely keen to answer.