ST. LOUIS — The marketing battle between the world's two biggest beermakers is getting increasingly nasty.
Miller Brewing Co. started the fight with TV spots showing a referee penalizing drinkers of Anheuser-Busch Cos.' Budweiser and Bud Light. Calling their choice of suds "unbeermanlike" conduct, the ref replaces the beer with Miller Lite or Miller Genuine Draft.
Anheuser-Busch then fired back with commercials suggesting Miller's referees were actually stealing the Bud Light for themselves, in some cases looking to run from police with their ill-gotten brews.
Although the commercials amused many consumers, some observers say they lack sportsmanship and maybe good sense. Even TV networks are stepping in, pulling some spots and refusing to debut others.
Critics say there are several problems with the ad campaigns: Some of the Miller commercials make unsubstantiated claims about its rival's products, while the Bud spots include unlawful acts.
"To some degree, it has become unusually personal," said Hoag Levins, editor and executive producer of Advertising Age magazine's Web site, AdAge.com. "Some of the advertising is really petty."
And, he and others say, risky in that Anheuser-Busch's public counteroffensives against Miller may legitimize the rival that has an 18 percent share of the U.S. beer market, a far cry from Anheuser-Busch's dominant 50 percent.
"When you mention the competitor you're trying to crush, are you inadvertently burning the competitor's brand in the consumer's mind?" Levins asks. "There's a great deal of debate about how smart that is."
Some ads rejected
According to some reports, ABC and ESPN rejected three proposed Anheuser-Busch spots spoofing the Miller ones.
ABC called the matter confidential, saying it never discloses dealings with its clients. ESPN also was silent. The Walt Disney Co., the corporate parent of both networks, referred inquiries to ESPN.
Anheuser-Busch, the No. 1 brewer, issued a statement saying only that its "ad campaigns are performing well in the marketplace and none have been pulled off the air by any networks."
"We have no plans to pull the spots," said Francine Katz, an Anheuser-Busch spokeswoman who credits them with improved sales of Bud Light and low-carb Michelob Ultra.
"We believe there's no doubt these spots are part of our success," she said. "I can tell you that people tell us our ads are hysterical and they love them. We look to entertain consumers; we don't worry about what competitors like or don't like about our commercials."
She declined to discuss Anheuser-Busch's advertising strategy, including whether its spots would continue challenging Miller by name.
Miller apparently isn't budging either. The No. 2 brewer has launched its latest TV spot featuring a referee, with the plug showing an official, using instant reply, declaring: "Upon further review, the call still stands. Miller Lite still has more taste and half the carbs of Bud Light."
In going against a rival with nearly three times the domestic market share, "it is very beneficial for us to ask consumers to compare Miller's beers versus Anheuser-Busch's beers," Miller spokesman Pete Marino said.
No joking matter
Last month, CBS, ABC and NBC pulled three Miller ads after Anheuser-Busch complained that nine Miller ads that aired since the summer were unsubstantiated and misleading. One of the pulled ads was considered unduly "disparaging"; the other two spots were yanked because they insinuated an unsubstantiated claim that consumers preferred Miller over Bud.
Meanwhile, in complaints to federal regulators and the Beer Institute trade group, consumer watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest has argued that the Anheuser-Busch commercials of beer-pilfering refs bolting from police depict lawlessness.
The center said that "though done in a jocular manner, the ads clearly run afoul" of the institute's voluntary codes barring ads that "portray or imply illegal behavior of any kind."
"Crime is no joke, nor is the subtext of obtaining one's beer through underhanded means," George Hacker, chief of the center's Alcohol Policies Project, wrote in his complaint letter.
Anheuser-Busch defended the commercials as "clearly meant to be a spoof of the spots currently being run by our competitor," with "over-the-top humor that makes the spots funny."
John Kaestner, Anheuser-Busch's vice president of consumer affairs, responded in a letter to Hacker that the spots were "a lighthearted and funny extension of Bud Light's long-standing 'people will go to great lengths to enjoy a Bud Light' ad campaign."
End of the line?
Still, some analysts submit that in an industry where brewers should get kudos for funny innovation in TV spots over the years, it may be time for Anheuser-Busch and Miller to stop chucking bottles at each other.
"I hope cooler heads will prevail," said Juli Niemann, an analyst with RT Jones Capital Equities in St. Louis.
In beer circles, where brand loyalty among consumers is intense, a brewer "using an enormous amount of money to fight over an incremental share is amazing," Niemann says.
"Is that the most effective use of advertising dollars? My answer is no," she says.
In other ads, Anheuser-Busch has labeled Miller Lite the "Queen of Carbs." With its "President of Beer" TV ad campaign, Miller mocked Budweiser's self-proclaimed status as the "King of Beers." In response, Anheuser-Busch revived animated lizards Frankie and Louie to ridicule Miller.
Some observers like the new ads, including Brandweek magazine's Mike Beirne.
"Miller has done a pretty decent job so far saying there's an alternative" to Anheuser-Busch, said Beirne, a Chicago-based reporter who covers the brewing industry. "It works for Miller because they're the scrappy player taking on the king of the hill. The king, when it answers, has to be funnier and cleverer, and I'm not sure they've done that yet."
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