Under the influence

It sounds positively cynical to say such, but we live in an era of spectacle and circus, provided to us hour by hour via social media. So many things exist to elicit an emotion and, by extension, keep you engaged in whatever is being sold. 

Social media in particular serves as an ersatz tastemaker, driving not only what we should wear, watch, or listen to, but how we should feel at any given time. Make no mistake, this is big business, as companies plan large campaigns around their social media reach. 

So, it should come as no surprise that when an aging brand wants to raise their cache among a younger demographic, they’ll dip their toe into social media, courting influencers and mining younger dollars. 

Such was surely the case for Anheuser-Busch and their parent company, AB InBev. Their Bud Light brand had long been a staple for the company — but sales had dropped in recent years. 

Meanwhile, social media influencer Dylan Mulvaney was making a name for herself on TikTok. In 2022, she started a series called “Days of Girlhood” on her channel, documenting her gender transition.

It was a hit. She now has over 10 million followers, and her series has had over one billion views. 

This sort of reach is exactly the sort of thing a brand would want to attach itself to. Indeed, before Anheuser-Busch came knocking, Ulta Beauty attached themselves to Mulvaney, having her on a podcast with David Lopez, a gender fluid hairstylist. 

This appearance, perhaps in a case of foreshadowing, led to a call to boycott Ulta. This didn’t, however, dim Mulvaney’s star, as she found herself interviewing President Biden on trans rights shortly thereafter.

Enter Bud Light, a brand that made their name with “Spuds MacKenzie” commercials featuring the eponymous “party animal” pooch often surrounded by bikini-clad women. 

In a sponsorship deal with the brand, Mulvaney did a 45 second video hyping Bud Light, showing off a can the company made that featured a drawing of Mulvaney. It’s a quick and easy prompt to Mulvaney’s audience that presumably delivered some cash to her while helping to raise the awareness of the Bud Light brand to her audience. 

Or so one may have thought. 

It did not take long for the controversy to brew during this ugly time for trans visibility. Amid a backdrop of transgender people being presented as the seminal ill destroying society, seeing a beer brand promoting a transgender woman was too much for many on the right. 

In his own way of social media influencing, has-been performer Kid Rock took to his backyard to use a rifle to attempt to shoot some Bud Light case packs in protest. Country Singer Travis Tritt followed this up with a call to boycott Bud Light and other Anheuser-Busch brands. Many, many more such calls followed. 

Then things went off the rails: Budweiser plants have received bomb threats, and appearances of their Clydesdales have been canceled over fears of harm to their horses. 

There are a couple things I think worth noting. First, this is far from the first time the Bud Light brand has promoted itself in LGBTQ circles, and LGBT-themed cans have been a thing that’s been done before. Meanwhile, the Mulvaney can, for that matter, wasn’t even introduced to stores, and was presented to her only. 

Meanwhile, anyone who has ever attended a Pride event can tell you about the wide number of beer brands that advertise, vend their products, and otherwise join in “rainbow capitalism.” This is truly nothing new, aside from it happening at a time when transgender rights are at the heart of a modern moral panic that’s drummed up by the right-wing as a way to command their base in a time when the leader of the party is indicted for crimes, and no one else under their banner is faring well. 

Indeed, this, too, is the way that the right does social media influencing, and it serves the same purpose of it all. They are pushing outrage and know how to turn that into cash. 

Bud Light has attempted to diffuse the situation, putting out a tepid statement that they, “never intended to be part of a discussion that divides people.” Meanwhile, some on the right itself are also trying to quell the calls for boycotts upon discovering that Anheuser-Busch is a large donor to right-wing candidates. Bud Light, likewise, has seen a small bump in sales thanks to this all.

What of Dylan Mulvaney in all this? For one, she was last seen promoting a Nike sports bra, leading to calls for a boycott of this brand. I suspect she will do okay.

But I want to note one more thing about her. She’s turned her transition into a story that her viewers can participate in, and has done so in a way they can be inspired. She has done what hundreds of trans autobiographies have done, presenting a “hero journey” story that non-trans people can latch onto, even in an era of so much anti-trans animus, and done so in a — dare I say — joyous fashion that has gained her the popularity she has — and the ire of those who would rather see transgender people bitter and broken. 

There’s a lesson to this, and it’s one I think we need to better understand. There is hope in our joy, and I feel that we can succeed if we can keep it alive. We all need to be out there, inspiring people, and providing an alternative to the outrage and anger. 

That’s influencing I can get behind. 

Gwen Smith isn’t going to tell you her favorite beer brand. You’ll find her at www.gwensmith.com/.

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