When Jimmy Kimmel launched his late-night show on ABC, he came up with a novel enticement for the audience – free beer. Now that Steven Colbert is carving out a place for himself in the wee hours on CBS, he is stretching the concept by giving free ads to a big beer advertiser.
In recent months, Colbert has on at least two occasions granted prominent placement to Anheuser Busch InBev’s well-known brew Bud Light during CBS’ “Late Show.” Earlier this week, Colbert opened a broadcast that ran after the presidential debate between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump with a segment that involved an animated version of Abraham Lincoln. Two bottles of Bud Light, their labels turned away slightly from the camera, could be easily spotted on screen. Later, the cartoon President quaffed beer from an animated Bud Light bottle. In July, during a live broadcast slated to coincide with the Republican National Convention, Colbert whipped out a bottle of Bud Light, and sipped from it. “Bud Light – the beer we could get,” he said to his audience.
“We have a good relationship with the network and there have been several occasions when they have naturally integrated Bud Light into the show,” said Lisa Weser, a spokeswoman for Anheuser Busch. The brewer did not pay for the placements, she said.
To be sure, Anheuser does pay for the hard-to-miss appearances, albeit not directly. The company has multiple advertising partnerships with CBS. Every night, the brewer’s comestibles are in full view on CBS’ “The Late Late Show,” where a Bud Light bar stands on stage next to host James Corden. Anheuser Busch is also a presenting sponsor of “Thursday Night Football,” one of the linchpins of CBS’ primetime lineup in the fall (and NBC’s too). Simply put, it’s hard to believe that Colbert would cede time in his program to just any sponsor.
What’s more, Anheuser has recently increased the amount of money it spends on CBS’ late-night schedule. In the first six months of 2016, Anheuser placed about $2.64 million of advertising during “The Late Show,” according to Kantar, a tracker of ad spending, compared with $761,000 in the year-earlier time period. While the 2016 number is tiny in the world of TV commercials, it represents a whopping 246% increase over what the manufacturer of Budweiser, Rolling Rock and Shock Top spent on the show in the first six months of 2015. Anheuser’s overall spend behind Colbert’s “Late Show” and Corden’s “Late Late Show” came to about $3.72 million in the first half of this year – nearly 30% more than what the brewer put behind traditional TV commercials in both shows for all of last year.
CBS declined to make ad-sales executives available for comment.
Colbert has earnestly swigged Anheuser beverages in the past. On his previous show, Comedy Central’s “Colbert Report,” he played a bloviating conservative talking head who regularly quaffed Bud Light Lime (a drink that John Oliver has made fun of on several occasions on HBO’s satirical “Last Week Tonight”). Anheuser in the past has said those appearances were not paid placements.
Colbert has developed a reputation on Madison Avenue as an effective but challenging pitchman. He has hawked Wheat Thins and Doritos by weaving them into his commentary. Advertising executives familiar with the process describe it as a harrowing one. The publicity they get from such appearances generates tons of chatter. At the same time, Colbert insists on complete control, sometimes making fun of the advertiser paying him to mention a particular type of cracker or mayonnaise. When he launched his “Late Show’ on CBS last year, Colbert laced Sabra hummus into the proceedings during his debut broadcast in very noticeable fashion.
CBS could probably charge for Bud Light’s “Late Show” cameos, but since Colbert determines when and if the beverages appear, it’s not entirely clear the brewer would be on board with the concepts. “In this particular case we didn’t know about the segment or request they use our beer,” said Weser of Bud Light’s most recent appearance. “It was a fun surprise.” And a cheap one, too.