A new Anheuser-Busch marketing strategy is taking "This Bud's for you" to a whole new level.
Their new customized beer can colors mimic the school colors of 26 universities around the nation. The "Fan Cans" were released just in time for fall football season. Although they don't bear a school name or logo, many school administrators say Anheuser-Busch crossed the line.
"It's an intentional act on their part to find colors that are associated with a certain market, but that market from our perspective is underage drinkers," said Dr. Kevin Prince, health education coordinator for the University of Texas at Austin. "My concern is does this [campaign] promote responsible drinking?"
But the can controversy angering colleges across the country hasn't stopped students from stocking up. Maggie Ogden, a nutrition major and senior at UT-Austin, said she bought a 24-pack because the cans were orange, mimicking UT's school colors: burnt orange and white.
"I like that it advertises football season, which is exciting," Ogden, 21, said. "There really wasn't much thought-process to [my decision to buy them]."
On Monday one eager University of Florida fan Tweeted, "Where can I get a pack of Gator Bud Light Fan Cans?"
"I'm flattered the cans have our colors," said UT government major and senior Mack Shaffer. He sampled one of the fan cans, but doesn't plan to buy them in the future.
"I think a beer's a beer," Schaffer, 21, said. "I'm not going to be persuaded to buy one painted in my school's colors over one I really like [to drink]."
'It's Not the Most Responsible Thing to Do'
The Federal Trade Commission, a government agency that promotes consumer protection, has spoken to the brewer and voiced concerns about the campaign, which many fear is geared to fans under the legal drinking age of 21.
"Our concern about the campaign is that when you're talking about a college campus, you're talking about a population of many underage students, and you're adding to it a population of mostly binge drinkers," said Janet Evans, a senior attorney at the FTC. "It was not the most responsible thing to do."
According to the Centers for Disease Control, people under the age of 20 drink about 11 percent of all alcohol consumed in the U.S. Nearly 90 percent of the alcohol consumed by those under 20 is via binge drinking, which the CDC defines as drinking to the point where one's blood alcohol concentration is 0.08 percent or more.
The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism reported that there were 1,825 alcohol-related deaths among college students in 2005, up from 1,440 in 1998. Also, in 2006, the Institute found that 28 percent of those under age 20 drank alcohol, with 19 percent engaging in binge drinking.
Carol Clark, Anheuser-Busch's vice president of corporate social responsibility, said in a written statement that the new color schemes are a way to connect to fans in a fun way, while still obeying the law by catering to those who are of legal drinking age.
"This is a voluntary program made available to all wholesalers nationwide, and roughly half of our wholesalers are participating," Clark said in the statement. "We offered a variety of color combinations to choose from and in some cases, wholesalers have ordered multiple color combinations."
Clark said Anheuser-Busch has invested around $750 million to help prevent alcohol abuse, especially among minors, and will continue to pursue such efforts.
"Our company's position on college drinking is clear," Clark said. "If students are 21 or older and choose to drink, we want them to do so responsibly. If they are under 21, we want them to respect the law and not drink."
Colleges Ask Anheuser-Busch to Drop Fan Can Campaign
Tammy Purves, spokesperson for the Collegiate Licensing Co., which represents approximately 200 colleges, said they have already written a complaint to Anheuser-Busch about potential trademark violations. As many as 25 schools with the group have formally asked the brewer to drop the campaign, she said. The Associated Press reported on Tuesday that the brewer would drop its Fan Can promotions in some communities where local colleges have protested the company's school-colored marketing campaign.
University of Texas at Austin has yet to file a complaint -- and will probably not do so.
UT-Austin has an ongoing partnership with local Anheuser-Busch distributor, Brown Distributing, and was alerted of the campaign almost immediately. Christine Plonsky, director of women's athletics, who also oversees licensing, was relieved to see that the fan colors were slightly different than the official colors of the school.
"It's not relevant to us right now," Plonsky said. "The cans were bright M&M orange. There were no Texas symbols, no Texas marks and there were no other collaterals to insinuate our endorsement. Maybe it was lucky for them that they missed the mark."
But Prince said he hopes this campaign ends up being a cold-hard lesson for the manufacturer.
"I would say if you're looking at the greater good of all involved, you will avoid this type of marketing and find some other means of getting your product out there," Prince said. "I mean, beer kind of sells itself, I would think."