MillerCoors Awarded Partial Preliminary Injunction in Battle Over Corn Syrup Ads

Following a federal judge’s ruling Friday evening, Anheuser-Busch InBev will be required to pull some Bud Light advertisements that suggest MillerCoors’ flagship light lagers, Miller Lite and Coors Light, contain corn syrup.

Western District of Wisconsin Judge William Conley granted MillerCoors a “narrow in scope” preliminary injunction, blocking A-B from displaying billboards that say Bud Light contains “100% less corn syrup” than its rival’s lagers, as well as broadcasting a pair of television ads that he deemed “misleading.” The judge also denied A-B’s motion to dismiss the case.

Conley’s order is the most significant development yet in the so-called “corntroversy” between the United States’ two largest beer manufacturers. In late March, MillerCoors sued A-B, claiming the latter’s Bud Light Super Bowl ads and follow-up “transparency” commercials were part of a deceptive advertising campaign aimed at tricking consumers into believing that Coors Light and Miller Lite contain high-fructose corn syrup.

According to Conley’s order, MillerCoors demonstrated that some of A-B’s ads have the potential to deceive “a substantial segment of consumers” into believing Miller Lite and Coors Light products contain corn syrup. As such, the judge barred A-B from using the following language in commercials, advertisements and social media posts beginning in early June:

  • Saying Bud Light contains “100% less corn syrup” than Miller Lite and/or Coors Light:
  • Referring to Bud Light and “no corn syrup” without any reference to “brewed with,” “made with” or “uses”;
  • Referring to Miller Lite and/or Coors Light and “corn syrup” without including the phrases “brewed with,” “made with” or “uses”;
  • Describing “corn syrup” as an ingredient “in” the finished product.

Conley said MillerCoors’ “strongest evidence” were statements from A-B executives who claimed they were “both aware of and intended to exploit consumer concerns about corn syrup (and high fructose corn syrup in particular).”

In a statement, MillerCoors CEO Gavin Hattersley said the company was “pleased” with the ruling.

“As the dominant market leader, Anheuser-Busch should be seeking to grow the beer category, not destroy it through deceptive advertising,” he said. “Their campaign is bad for the public, bad for the beer industry and against the law. We are happy to hold them accountable for it, and we look forward to the next steps in this case.”

For its part, A-B declared the ruling “a victory for consumers as it allows Bud Light’s Super Bowl advertising to continue.”

“As the number one selling beer in the U.S., Bud Light remains committed to leading the alcohol industry by providing more transparency for consumers including letting them know about the ingredients that are used to brew their beer,” Carlos Vargas, A-B’s vice president of legal and corporate affairs, said in the release. “More transparency is good for the entire industry as it responds to a clear consumer demand.”

A-B added that it would continue to broadcast several advertisements in the coming weeks, including the original “Special Delivery” commercial that was first broadcast during this past February’s Super Bowl

Indeed, the judge’s order did not block A-B from using other advertisements referring to MillerCoors products and the use of corn syrup. The judge wrote that MillerCoors failed to demonstrate that Bud Light’s corn syrup ads “using the language ‘brewed with,’ ‘made with’ or ‘uses’ are misleading.” He added that those ads “do not disparage corn syrup or otherwise expressly draw attention to any negative health consequences.”

Still, two commercials crossed the line into being misleading, according to Conley. In one commercial, called “Thespians,” a Miller Lite bottle is depicted in a frame with the words “corn syrup” without context, while another frame shows a Bud Light bottle with the words “no corn syrup.”

The other ad in question, which first ran on March 20, features the Bud Light King discussing the return of a barrel of corn syrup and suggests that MillerCoors add an ingredients panel to its packaging. According to Conley, the commercial “crosses the line to encourage a reasonable consumer to believe corn syrup is actually contained in the final product.”

One issue that Conley did not decide was whether A-B would be required to pull Bud Light packaging containing the phrase “no corn syrup.” The judge gave MillerCoors until June 3 to make its case for an injunction.

For its part, A-B indicated to the court that it has already begun removing billboards with the “100% less corn syrup” language.

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