On January 31, Budweiser posted its 2017 Super Bowl commercial on YouTube. In the last week, the video has been viewed over 20 million times. The one-minute ad, entitled “Born the Hard Way,” presents a series of fictional vignettes depicting the 1857 voyage of Adolphus Busch, Budweiser’s founder, from Germany to St. Louis.
Released only days after President Trump’s executive order, which severely restricts immigration from seven nations, suspends the admission of all refugees for 120 days, and bars Syrian refugees from the United States, “Born the Hard Way” has ignited a huge debate across social media and the internet. On the one hand (and One Thing after Another paints with a broad brush), those who support President Trump and the travel ban, because they wish to safeguard the security of the country, see the ad as an implicit rebuke. On the other, many interpret the commercial as a moving tribute to the centrality of immigration to the American experience.
What surprises One Thing after Another is the visceral reaction to an advertisement that probably would not have raised eyebrows a couple of years ago. Why is the social media world so sure that a representation of a German immigrant’s journey in 1857 is an assault on the travel ban imposed in 2017 against predominantly Muslim countries in Africa and the Middle East? The analogy seems a bit of a stretch, even if Adolphus Busch is greeted in New Orleans by an unsavory character yelling “Go back home!” in his face. Why did Sarah Palin tweet “Budweiser Debuts Super Bowl Ad, and Its Politically Charged Message Has Americans Speechless”? Why did Stacey Dash, formerly of Fox News, write, “Dear Budweiser, your immigrant founder came here to make beer, not bombs (so spare me the heavy handed ad)”? Why is Brietbart convinced that Budweiser is playing politics? Why is there a movement afoot to boycott Budweiser (and see here) for making a supposedly political commercial?
A number of the claims made by critics seem a bit off-target if one looks at the genesis of the commercial. According to Adweek, work on “Born the Hard Way” began eight months ago (long before it seemed likely that Trump would become president) and forms part of a broad, long-term, multifaceted campaign to win back market share. The main role of expensive Super Bowl commercials within this campaign consists of building the brand (a one-minute spot during this year’s game will probably cost $15 million while the commercial itself cost $2-$3 million). The idea of showing the origins of Budweiser emerged in October 2016, and a script (the twelfth one considered) was approved around Thanksgiving of that year. According to Laura Rowan, group strategy director at Anomaly (the creative agency that participated in coming up with the idea), “This is the story of the original self-made man, one of the founders of the American Dream, making it the hard way, and his path that all came after him followed.” Rowan’s use of the phrase “the hard way,” along with the commercial’s title, link this effort to the phrase “brewed the hard way,” which has been the centerpiece of Budweiser’s message for the last couple of years (see Budweiser’s Super Bowl XLIX ad).
In any event, it is this kind of thinking about building a brand and capturing market share that led to the production of “Born the Hard Way.” As Ricardo Marques, Vice President of Marketing for Budweiser, asserted:
It’s true, Adolphus Busch made an incredible journey to this country, and that’s really what this is about. It’s about his vision, his dream, everything that he does to achieve that. . . . Even though it happened in the 1850s, it’s a story that is super relevant today. That’s what we’re honing in on; it’s the pursuit, the effort, the passion, the drive, the hard work, the ambition, that’s really what this is about more than anything else. . . . There’s really no correlation with anything else that’s happening in the country. . . . We believe this is a universal story that is very relevant today because probably more than any other period in history today the world pulls you in different directions, and it’s never been harder to stick to your guns.
In other words, the Budweiser ad was intended as political, but not in the way that everybody seems to think. Instead of using the story of the company’s immigrant founder to express the value of immigration, it sought to extoll the virtues of hard work—an idea that it believes its consumers share.
Budweiser’s argument seems to make sense. Family-owned firms (or firms that have a long tradition of family ownership—Budweiser passed from the Busch family to InBev in 2008) are very proud of their founders and history. One has only to remember how Ford Motor Company produces encomiums to Henry Ford or the way Hewlett-Packard reverentially refers to David Packard and his famous garage in Palo Alto. It is entirely possible that a company enamored of its founder and his virtues might not have stopped to think about the different ways in which his story might be understood.
At this point, readers may start thinking that One Thing after Another is letting Budweiser off the hook by exonerating it of playing immigration politics. Yes and no; you should read on. This entire incident reminds this blog of three related points with which many historians (and scholars in closely related fields) will be familiar. First, crying foul because Budweiser has produced a “political” ad is naïve; all messages, whatever the medium, are political. An ad supporting immigration is just as political as a commercial touting the value of ambition, determination, and hard work. Through the act of associating certain images and ideas with a product, commercials are engaged in politics, whether it’s in the name of selling soft drinks, cars, cleaning supplies, or Snuggies. And if you stop for a second to think about the entire purpose of commercials—getting people to buy stuff that they might not otherwise want—you realize that commercials are a supremely political act.
Second, the kerfuffle over this commercial shows how important history is to popular political culture. Even those who know so very little about history understand that narratives about the past can either offer precedents for present-day actions or delegitimize them. Budweiser sought to use a small slice of history (albeit fictionalized) about its single-minded founder to burnish the image of its beer. But Budweiser could not retain ownership of the story as it became consumed by contemporary politics; it goes without saying that political groups are desperate to control narratives of the past. In the case of “Born the Hard Way,” the question went from “Don’t you want to buy beer from a company that is as committed to its product as its founder, Adolphus Busch, was?” to, “Does the experience of Adolphus Busch and other German immigrants in the mid-19th century express the value of a less restrictive immigration policy in 2017?” One Thing after Another would like to think that Budweiser has performed an important service by inadvertently presenting this question to the public. Many responses to the commercial, though, seem to indicate that debate on this topic has become a dialog of the deaf—an occasion for expressing shibboleths rather than an opportunity for exchanging ideas.
Still, the third point might offer us some hope. The debate concerning the commercial makes One Thing after Another think of “reader response criticism” as developed by Stanley Fish, the literary theorist and legal scholar. Fish argues that readers do not interpret an objective text—rather, they make the text in the act of reading. The only reason so many readers produce the same meaning from a text is because they belong to an “interpretive community” which has been trained to read in much the same way. This idea, of course, can be extended to visual media, including commercials. Budweiser may have intended to produce a tribute to the bootstrapping character of its founder, but the time and place are such that Americans have read a statement about immigration. In some ways, this situation is more promising than it appears. It would seem that divided as the United States is at this point, we still have enough in common to belong to the same interpretive community. We have all produced the same text and agree on its significance—but we disagree on its value.