Coopting Commencement

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Coopting Commencement

Dr. David Hagenbuch, Ethicist and Professor of Marketing, Messiah College, Author of Honorable Influence, Founder of MindfulMarketing.org  

People are missing out on many favorite activities because of the pandemic, but not being able to eat in a restaurant or go to the movies are small sacrifices compared to the major life events some have been forced to forgo: weddings, honeymoons, graduations.  Some caring companies have stepped in to ease the pain, but could their efforts actually be causing more harm?

As one who’s taught in higher education for two decades, I certainly appreciate the significance of college commencement.  I’ve had a front row seat to thousands of students’ struggles and success over their four-year college careers, as well as to their graduation days, which are meaningful tributes marking the culmination of a lifetime of formal education.

When students’ academic journeys conclude, there’s tremendous relief and joy!  The about-to-be graduates are excited, and their proud parents and grandparents are often even more animated—sometimes embarrassingly so.  Families and friends want to be together to witness their loved one walk across the stage and to celebrate their momentous accomplishment.

Tragically, those celebrations will not happen on most college campuses this spring, as the coronavirus has pulled the plug on virtually all large group gatherings for the foreseeable future.  While many formerly in-person experiences have been moved online, some with very little distortion, it seems impossible to replicate electronically the sights, sounds, and feelings of an on-campus commencement ceremony.

However, one ‘institution’ is making a great effort to ensure that this spring everyone’s graduation (high school, college, or other) is memorable.   It’s not an organization you’d likely guess, but it is one with which you’re probably familiar:  Anheuser-Busch.  The King of Beers will play the role of principal and president at a very unique commencement event.

Natural Light, one of Anheuser-Busch’s many beer brands, will host “a virtual college commencement ceremony on Facebook Live to celebrate graduates around the world.”  The ceremony will take place at 7:00 pm Eastern Time on Thursday, May 14, on Natural Light’s Facebook Page.

Graduating seniors who sign up in advance will have their names read on a “branded commencement microsite” by celebrities Shep Rose and Arianny Celeste. The event’s speakers will include, among others, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban and ESPN sports commentator Stephen A. Smith.

It’s great to see companies giving to those who tragedy has impacted physically, emotionally, and socially.  Anheuser-Busch has a history of such corporate social responsibility; for instance, it has “donated nearly 83 million cans of emergency drinking water to disaster relief since 1988.”

Given the personalities employed, “Natty’s Worldwide Commencement” is likely to be an expensive event for its sponsor, even though done entirely online.  It looks like the company wants to lift the spirits of soon-to-be grads, but are there other reasons Anheuser-Busch is willing to go to such effort and expense to offer an education-related event for free?

The rather obvious answer is that the firm wants to ‘teach’ young people to drink more Natural Light.  A recent article in Marketing Dive suggests the same motive:

“Natural Light is attempting to make up for [coronavirus-related] losses while drumming up brand awareness among its core college-aged consumers. By providing this experience to young consumers during a difficult time, the brand could build good will and position itself in a positive light to help it nurture a loyal following of beer drinkers in the future.”

The fact that Anheuser-Busch’s motives for the commencement ceremony are not solely altruistic isn’t necessarily a problem.  I, for one, am a firm believer that individuals and organizations can and often do successfully maintain more than one motive at a time, i.e., they can realize multiple goals simultaneously.  Whether it’s a marriage relationship or a customer relationship, people often receive benefits from others, even as they give them.

There’s also not necessarily anything wrong with a beer company building pandemic-era brand equity by tapping positive consumer sentiment.  Miller High Life, for instance, is running a contest to help couples get married at home.  Thanks to the Miller Brewing Company, three engaged couples will win a “Wedding at Your Doorstep,” which includes beer, a photographer, an officiant, and $10,000 for honeymoon expenses.  The company even promises to cover cancelled wedding costs. 

So, what could be problematic with Anheuser-Busch’s product positioning?  The issue is the target market.  The company seems to be specifically targeting college students and is likely appealing to those even younger with its Natural Light line, which contains teen-friendly flavors like Strawberry Lemonade Beer and Strawberry Kiwi [hard] Seltzer.

Natty’s Worldwide Commencement is one piece of evidence that supports the college-targeting claim, but there’s more, such as an Anheuser-Busch promotion offering free beer to anyone turning 21, and a YouTube-based campaign to find a summer intern.  Based on such evidence, Marketing Dive has deduced: “Natural Light in recent years has narrowed its marketing focus to reach college students.”

What’s more, aspirational purchase behavior often leads to target market creep:  People who technically are not part of a target market buy its products because they want to be like those who are the ‘in’ group.  For teens, this behavior often translates into wanting a more mature appearance and purchasing items aimed at those older than them.

What’s the connection to Natural Light’s Worldwide Commencement?  It has to do with demographics.  The National Center for Education Statistics projected that about 19.9 million students attended degree-granting postsecondary institutions in the fall of 2019.  Of them, approximately 4.27 million (21.45%) were 19 years old or younger.

Another 4.47 million were either 20 or 21 years old.  A conservative estimate is that 25% of those students, or 1.1 million, will not turn 21 by the end of May, which means nearly 27% of college students in the 2019-2020 academic year are 20 years old or younger (4.27 + 1.1 = 5.37 million / 19.9 million = 26.98%).  In addition, almost all high school seniors are just 17 or 18 years old.

Anheuser-Busch’s target market for Natural Light is troubling in two ways.  First, other than some rare exceptions, the legal drinking age in the United States is 21.  For older college students, that’s not an issue, but for 27% of them and virtually all high school students, alcohol consumption is illegal.

Second, although many people do drink responsibly, there are potentially serious risks associated alcohol abuse, to which teens are especially susceptible.  Here are some of the ‘sobering’ statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention:

  • Alcohol is the most commonly used and abused drug among youth in the United States.
  • On average, underage drinkers consume more drinks per drinking occasion than adult drinkers.
  • Those aged 12 to 20 years drink 11% of all alcohol consumed in the United States and more than 90% of the time are involved in binge drinking.
  • After drinking, 6% of youth drove and 17% rode with a driver who had been drinking.
  • Outcomes of underage drinking include changes in brain development, poor academic performance, social and legal problems, imprudent sexual practices, physical and sexual assault, and higher instances of suicide and homicide.
  • Every year, more the 4,300 underage youth die from excessive drinking.

Those who read my blog regularly might remember another time I took issue with marketers associating alcohol and academia.  In January of 2017, I wrote a piece, “Alcohol Ads and College Athletics Don’t Mix,” that questioned the NCAA’s designation of Dos Equis as “The Official Beer Sponsor of the College Football Playoff.”

It’s not that I thought another beer brand would be a better sponsor.  I argued that having any alcohol company as an official sponsor of college athletics was “a paradoxical distinction that further propagates the false compatibility of beer and books, drunkenness and diligence, wasted-ness and wellness.”

In some ways, I believe Anheuser-Busch’s decision to sponsor a college commencement ceremony is even worse.  First, its positioning as an event for ‘all graduates’ means it may reach an even younger demographic, which definitely doesn’t need any additional enticement to drink.

Second, while a graduation is a celebration, it should be a dignified one.  Yes, people of age can choose to drink beer during a football game or soccer match, but they shouldn’t be drinking during a high school graduation or college commencement.  Yet, that’s exactly what Natural Light encouraged in a Facebook post on April 9:

“Graduation ceremony cancelled?  Sucks, but we got your back.  We’re throwing a worldwide commencement ceremony for the class of 2020 . . . Plus, you get to drink beer.” 

Another significant part of commencement is the stole that drapes over certain graduates’ shoulders, conveying special honors or individual achievement.  As shown in a Facebook post on April 24, Anheuser-Busch has diminished that symbol of “prestigious recognition” by silk-screening Natural Light logos on a custom-made stole that it “might” send to those who like or share the post.  Perhaps it’s a stole for those who ‘minored in binge drinking’ and ‘majored in partying.’

Finally, important but sometimes overlooked roles in a commencement ceremony are the people who read the names of the graduates.  Where I work, those individuals are the deans of our various schools.  As a graduate, it’s an honor to have your name read by an accomplished scholar or respected teacher.  It’s another thing to have it ready by someone who’s resume includes “UFC ring girl” and “Playboy model.”

As a college professor and a marketer, I appreciate the need for partnerships between corporations and higher education.  In fact, without the former’s support, most colleges and universities either could not exist or could not begin to serve students in the ways that they do.  Tuition revenue typically cannot cover all operating costs or fund large capital projects like academic buildings, dormitories, and sports complexes.

Higher education needs business, and business needs higher education, for instance, to help prepare the next generation of employees.  Everyone needs companies that respect the educational process and the people who participate in it, especially its young and most malleable consumers.  Unfortunately, Anheuser-Busch’s global graduation ceremony is a thinly-veiled promotional-grab that offers no genuine respect for either. 

Over the last month-and-a-half, I’ve been meeting via video conference twice a week with the students in our capstone marketing class, all of whom are seniors.  Each time I see their faces on a computer screen, I feel for their loss—unable to enjoy campus life for their final semester.  However, I’m sure each of these marketing majors, who have learned what it means to market for mutual benefit, can see past Natural Light’s benevolence façade and recognize the long-term risk its pop-culture ceremony holds for their peers.

It’s nice that a star-studded event may temporarily lift the spirits of some of those most regrettably impacted by COVID-19.  However, disregard for educational decorum and the well-being of those most vulnerable to alcohol’s harmful effects, earns Anheuser-Busch a degree in “Single-Minded Marketing.”


About the Author: Dr. David Hagenbuch is a Professor of Marketing at Messiah College, the author of Honorable Influence, and the founder MindfulMarketing.org, which aims to encourage ethical marketing.

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