System1: who’s winning the Bud Light/Miller Lite ad spat ?

Light beer never gripped the consumer consciousness in the UK in the same way as it did in the US. Over there, light beer ruled the market. Over here, it’s often just the last beer left in the fridge after a barbeque.

But times have changed in the light beer heartland. The US craft beer market is now fairly mature, with a range of independents and craft beers now offered in almost all bars, which leaves Miller Lite and Bud Light fighting through advertising to keep their brands relevant.

This battle of the brands has turned slightly sour recently with MillerCoors filing a lawsuit against Anheuser Busch over a claim in Bud Light’s recent advertising that Miller Lite uses corn syrup in the brewing process.

While this matter may seem trivial to many, it has thrown up some serious campaign mudslinging. An initial archery-themed Bud Light ad announced their new ingredient label, but this was just target practice. During the Super Bowl they took more direct aim, with the Bud Light King rejecting a box of corn syrup, drawing attention to the fact that Bud Light does not use corn syrup in its brewing process whereas Miller Lite does. MillerCoors retaliated by stating that it filters out the corn syrup during the process, and then made a response ad alleging that all crew members filming Bud Light commercials in fact drink Miller Lite.

Outside Adland, does anyone actually care? We looked at both brands’ recent TV campaigns using System1 Ad Ratings data. Ad Ratings uses consumer emotional responses to create an effectiveness Star Rating for every ad that airs on TV (US & UK) in major consumer categories. The Star Rating predicts an ad’s potential contribution to brand growth, and for context, over half of all TV ads in the US and UK only achieve 1 star. System1’s Spike measure, meanwhile, predicts short term sales effect by measuring the intensity of emotion felt towards each ad and correct brand recognition – brand fluency.

Performance – Emotional Response

Bud Light’s opening attack – about the ingredients label – was the most effective of all the ads during the spat achieving 4-stars. Beer drinkers and the general public enjoyed the advert, and it is also predicted to have the greatest immediate potential effect on beer sales, with an exceptionally high Spike score.

Bud Light’s three ads during the Super Bowl partially missed their target, scoring 1-star, 2-star and 3-star respectively. But the long form Barrel Delivery ad was the pick of the bunch, scoring 3-stars and once again with a strong Spike score. It’s worth noting, though, that these ads are the ones where the ‘corn syrup’ message really started to become prominent.

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery

Miller were slow to respond on TV but their answer finally came in March, when they played ‘the reality card’, suggesting that outside Bud’s fairy-tale kingdoms, Miller Lite has the greatest taste. The result has been lukewarm: of the three TV ads to air, only one achieved 2-stars and moderate Spike effects.


Miller Lite has played into Bud Light’s hands in some respects – borrowing their medieval creative theme for their retaliatory shot, which risks increasing recollection of their competitor. The blow could have been more effective had it incorporated sharper humour to counter Bud Light’s attack, as traditionally sharper humour resonates well with beer drinkers as it’s a category with a history of more outlandish creative themes – it’s very difficult to imagine Coca-Cola and Pepsi engaged in a similar TV spot spat.

For Bud, the more positive first ad scored higher than its later, attack-minded ads. It’s possible, after all, that people just don’t care about corn syrup and find the negative approach more of a turn-off. Consumers are very positive about the ingredients initiative – but maybe Bud should stress that more than focusing on the competition and getting stuck in a mire of messaging.

Any damage done by Bud Light’s corn syrup offensive on perceptions is not yet clear – but there’s no doubt the ongoing battle is breathing greater visibility into the category and will boost awareness of both brands in the short-term. Consumer response points to Bud Light gaining most in the long term… unless Miller Lite has more surprises in its arsenal.

Jack Mayor is associate director Ad Ratings at System1

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