It’s not an exaggeration to say that the Super Bowl is a big deal in some people’s lives. Nearly 100 million watched this year’s event, making it the most-watched program of the year, with people tuning in at home and at sports bars.
The sports bar is an American tradition. The first was likely a place called Palermo’s in St. Louis across from Sportsman Park, home to more Major League Baseball games than any other stadium. Opened the same month in 1933 that Prohibition was lifted, in 1947 Palermo’s added a 12-inch television, cementing the bar’s reputation as the main sports hangout in the working-class neighborhood. The house beer had been Griesedieck, a famous St. Louis brand. Then in 1953, when Gussie Busch bought the Cardinals, the house beer changed to Budweiser. Gussie, ever the consummate marketer, would stop by the bar several times a year, shake hands, kiss babies, and of course buy a few rounds of beer, making sure everyone had a glass of Budweiser in their hand. In 1957, Anheuser-Busch became the largest brewer in the U.S. Then in 2016, the Washington State Liquor and Cannabis (WSLCB) board issued a $150,000 violation to Anheuser-Busch for entering into an illegal agreement of exclusivity with two concert venues in Seattle—the Showbox and the Showbox SoDo.
Cut to the 2019 Super Bowl, and it looks like Budweiser is still trying to make sure everyone has a glass of beer in their hand. And marketing is still a premium concern. If there is one advertising opportunity that marketing teams look forward to every year, it’s the Super Bowl. Companies spend millions of dollars filming ads, hoping they will become iconic.
AB InBev, which owns Anheuser-Busch, is the world’s largest brewing company and holds over 400 beer brands, including Budweiser, Stella Artois, Elysian Brewing Company (yes, that Elysian), Rolling Rock, Modelo, Hoegaarden, Beck’s, and many more. This year, the beverage conglomerate showed more ads than in any previous year, buying up more than five minutes of Super Bowl ad time for its various brands in an attempt to “elevate” beer and promote its exclusivity. The ad time cost approximately $5 million for 30 seconds. The company paid the NFL $1.4 billion in 2015 to become its exclusive alcohol sponsor. It is estimated that on Super Bowl Sunday, Americans consume upward of 325 million gallons of beer.
So why am I going in on all this beer and football talk? Because CBS and NFL had a chance to air a 60-second spot for medicinal cannabis and chose to turn it down. Acreage Holdings, a medicinal cannabis company backed by ex-House Speaker John Boehner (yes, that John Boehner), created a mature, straightforward commercial aimed at educating folks om the basics of medicinal cannabis. The spot featured a child with seizures and a veteran dealing with combat injuries. The company hoped the ad could help “create an advocacy campaign for constituents who are being lost in the dialogue,” Acreage Holdings President George Allen told Bloomberg, and hoped it would be a “call to political action,” in reference to the surge in interest around recreational cannabis, leaving medicinal concerns in the ashes.
In a way, it’s not surprising CBS turned down the ad. The NFL still bans its players from using the plant for any reason. Not that this sits comfortably with all players. Some NFL players clapped back against the league for not showing the Acreage ad. “Keep pumping the booze ads, guys,” Eagles defensive lineman Chris Long tweeted. But medicinal cannabis is legal in 30 states, and recreational is not far behind. The NFL needs to drop the keg and go long on this one.