Two Beer Giants Go to War Over Corn Syrup

MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch at Odds Regarding Corn Syrup in Beer

Beer giants and rivals MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch have been in court over the use of corn syrup in both manufacturing and advertising.  While the dispute resulted from Anheuser-Busch’s high-profile advertising campaign, which aired during the Super Bowl and showcased a variety of several humorous commercials created by Anheuser-Busch to highlight MillerCoors’s alleged use of corn syrup in their beer, MillerCoors found it to be no laughing matter and sued Anheuser-Busch over illegal use of their trademarks as well as deceptive advertising.

To Use or Not to Use Corn Syrup in Beer: Deceptive Advertising?

The commercials, which show “deliveries” of corn syrup to MillerCoors for use in their beer, while pointing out that Bud Light does not use corn syrup in their beer, aired during the Super Bowl and received notable attention and some positive reviews by viewers.  As the market that watches the Super Bowl and consumes beer obviously overlap, MillerCoors claims that Anheuser-Busch’s campaign was built upon deceptive advertising, illegal use of their trademarks, and was causing immediate harm to their MillerCoors’s brand. Specifically, MillerCoors claims that Anheuser-Busch’s advertising campaign deceptively preys upon the general public’s fear and disdain for high-fructose corn syrup.  

High-fructose corn syrup, which MillerCoors claims to be markedly different from the regular corn syrup that it uses during its brewing process, has built a significantly negative reputation among the general public as experts have associated the use of high-fructose corn syrup with obesity.  By contrast, MillerCoors claims that the corn syrup they use is a much more benign corn syrup, and that corn syrup is only used during the brewing process, and as such, is not considered an actual ingredient in the final beer product that needs to be listed on their beer bottles’ labels.  

Court Finds Deceptive Advertising in Anheuser-Busch Ad Campaign Suggesting Rivals Use Corn Syrup in Beer 

The U.S. District Court for the Western District of Wisconsin agreed, finding deceptive advertising and holding that Anheuser-Busch’s advertising messages were misleading as the implicit message being conveyed by Anheuser-Busch on their Bud Light packaging and through their commercials is that other beers contain corn syrup, such as MillerCoors’s.  As such, the court found that it was not unlikely that consumers would infer that Bud Light’s competitors do use corn syrup, especially in light of Anheuser-Busch’s Super Bowl ad campaign.  As a result, the court issued a preliminary injunction against Anheuser-Busch, ruling that it may continue to sell its products under the current “no corn syrup” packaging that it has already manufactured as of June 6, 2019 or until March 2, 2020, whichever comes first.  

Is There a Fine Line Between Consumer Education and Deceptive Advertising?

While MillerCoors has stated that the federal court’s holding and granting of a preliminary injunction is a win against Anheuser-Busch’s allegedly “deceptive practices,” Anheuser-Busch continues to defend its message, stating that they look forward to defending the right to inform beer drinkers of the use of corn syrup in other beers.  Anheuser-Busch also accused MillerCoors’s legal efforts as resistance to transparency in ingredients.

While transparency to consumers can be a great marketing tool, companies should consider the potential consequences of disclosing competitor information and the manner in doing so. Seeking the advice of intellectual property counsel can help to ensure a purported consumer education campaign doesn’t lead to litigation.

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