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This Bud’s Not for the World Cup

Soccer’s quadrennial World Cup begins any day now. This time around it will be played in Germany, where beer is the national soft drink. A beer company that buys a monopoly to sell its brew at the games should feel it’s died and gone to heaven.

Budweiser doesn’t. Before it knew the games were to be played in Deutschland, Anheuser-Busch, which makes Budweiser, paid $40 million for the World Cup beer monopoly. Unfortunately, Germans don’t like the beer. They call it Spülwasser, which roughly translates as dishwater.

In addition, there already is a comparable product in Germany, so the American company is not allowed to use its own name. The company must sell its product, the most popular beer in America, under the awkward label of "Anheuser-Busch Bud," and it had to negotiate even for that. Germany’s Bitburger beer is known as Bit, and the authorities ruled that Bit, a name close to Bud, had the name first. So Anheuser-Busch has paid all that money for a monopoly that has taken away its name and could trigger a demonstration or even rioting by furious spectators faced with no choice but to go dry or drink dishwater.

The Germans have even set up an anti-Bud website. If you take the time to drop in on the site, you will see pictures of Teutonic youths performing extreme anti-Bud acts. There is one lad, trying to look angry and dangerous, holding up a sign saying, "Ich Nix Bud! Du verstehen!" which needs no translation. There is also a picture of a fluffy white cat sitting back with his tummy exposed looking tipsy and silly with a bottle of you-know-what next to him and a caption underneath saying "Just for pussys [sic]."

This is the merchandising event from hell. Soccer is the most popular sport in the world, with no other remotely close to it, and if any rioting or other negative manifestations were to take place, they would be seen by a gigantic, worldwide TV audience. There’s a poke in the eye for a company that has spent the past 156 years and probably $5 or $6 billion promoting itself as the best there is.

Poor No-Name Anheuser-Busch may have panicked at the thought of fans, enraged at being offered nothing but Spülwasser, rioting to end the beer monopoly. For whatever reason, the company made a deal with Bitburger beer. If it could call itself Anheuser-Busch Bud, Bitburger would be allowed to sell its brew in the stadiums—but only in logo-free paper cups.

How can this be? If any American company has German roots, it is Anheuser-Busch, but maybe it is not German enough—or are we seeing yet another outbreak of Yankee-Go-Home-ism?

Evidently not. In Germany, where there are 1,300 breweries and 500 brands of beer, people cannot agree on what they like, but they know what they don’t like. And they don’t like Bud.

This is serious. Last year foreign sales provided Anheuser-Busch with almost 28 percent of its profits. If this adverse judgment were to spread, not only would the company take a hit but so would America, which is struggling to find anything to sell to people abroad.

The difficulty seems to be that for many a beer drinker, Bud is all but tasteless. According to the Wall Street Journal, Bud has been made blander and blander over the years to appeal to a wider and wider public.

For a long time, the Journal reports, the formula worked: "Daniel Ennis, director of the Institute for Perception in Richmond, Virginia, a group that analyzes consumers’ flavor preferences, says every person has an ’ideal’ taste for a beer or potato chip or cookie. But in the real world, companies create foods consumed by millions. ’People live in suboptimal situations,’ says Mr. Ennis, ’They don’t send their kids to the best schools, they don’t have the best jobs, they don’t eat the best foods.’ " Bland, unobjectionable Bud and blander-still Bud Lite may not be the best, but for millions and millions, second-best was good enough to buy.

No more. Some Americans want to taste the beer as well as get schnockled with it. Sensing a shift, Miller Beer, Anheuser-Busch’s only significant competition, has been running TV ads depicting hysterical Bud drinkers running about screaming "I can’t taste my beer!"

Budweiser has been losing market share for fifteen years, but until recently the losses were made up by Bud Lite. Of late Anheuser-Busch has been putting a tad more taste in its beer. It has also been coming out with beers with names like Old Eyepopper.

That’s a mistake. While marginal types may go for the microbrews, trust Americans to stick to the middle, the bland, the sugar-coated and the mild. Remember, we are a nation that eats Pringle potato chips with our denatured beer. We may talk the diversity game but not when it comes to what we wear, what we eat and what we drink.

Nicholas von Hoffman

The Nation - 5 June 2006
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