Anheuser-Busch InBev has until March 2, 2020, to sell through Bud Light packaging that contains language and an icon indicating that the top-selling beer in the U.S. contains “no corn syrup,” a federal judge ordered today.
Wednesday’s order is the latest development in the deceptive advertising lawsuit filed in March by MillerCoors against the world’s largest beer manufacturer. MillerCoors alleges that A-B’s Bud Light Super Bowl ads and subsequent “transparency” advertising campaign were aimed at tricking consumers into believing that Coors Light and Miller Lite contain high-fructose corn syrup. The advertisements that discussed Coors’ and Miller’s use of “corn syrup” — a different product — in the brewing process.
In today’s order, Western District of Wisconsin Judge William Conley modified an existing partial preliminary injunction granted to MillerCoors in May to extend to Bud Light packaging. The May order blocked A-B from displaying certain Bud Light billboards and television ads that he deemed “misleading,” and denied A-B’s motion to dismiss the case.
Despite granting MillerCoors’ request for a preliminary injunction, Conley is allowing A-B to sell through its existing packaging inventory available as of June 6, with a hard deadline to cease sales of the packs by March 2, 2020, whichever comes first.
According to Conley’s latest ruling, even though Bud Light’s packaging doesn’t reference Miller Lite or Coors Light, “that does not mean that it is not actionable under the Lanham Act,” the federal statute governing trademarks, service marks and unfair competition. Conley added that “a reasonable jury could find that the implicit message of the packaging is that other beers contain corn syrup.”
“Moreover, in light of the limited number of beers in the light beer market, with Bud Light, Miller Lite and Coors Light accounting for almost 100% of sales, that same jury could also find a substantial segment of consumers would infer that Bud Light’s principal competitors contain corn syrup, especially after a hundred million dollar television and print campaign misleadingly suggesting the same thing,” he wrote.
The judge noted that A-B estimated its unused Bud Light packaging inventory with the language as of June 6 exceeded 69.4 million packages, valued at more than $27.7 million. The company also had more than 1.3 million cases of Bud light valued at about $5 million packaged into the boxes in its breweries and warehouses at the time.
Although MillerCoors “demonstrated some likelihood of success on the merits and benefits from a presumption of irreparable harm,” Conley wrote that a “tailored injunction” was the best option given the lack of comparative statements on the packaging, the financial burden to A-B and potential interruption of its distribution.
In a statement, MillerCoors CEO Gavin Hattersley, who will take over as CEO of Molson Coors on September 27 following the retirement of Mark Hunter, called today’s order “another victory for MillerCoors,” as well as “another victory for the American public against deceptive advertising like Bud Light’s.”
“Bud Light’s campaign was bad for the public, bad for the industry and against the law,” he said. “With this ruling, we are holding Bud Light accountable for its actions, and we will keep holding their feet to the fire every time they intentionally mislead the American public.”
A-B released its own statement, doubling down on its “no corn syrup” messaging.
“Bud Light is brewed with no corn syrup – plain and simple,” an A-B spokesperson said. “We look forward to defending our right to inform beer drinkers of this fact at trial and on appeal. MillerCoors is resisting consumer demands for transparency in the ingredients used to brew its beers, but those demands are here to stay. We will continue leading this movement in the beer industry.”