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Miller says Bud Light changed its formula

/ Source: The Associated Press

The latest fight in the U.S. beer battle is a matter of taste. Miller Brewing Co. says rival Anheuser-Busch has altered Bud Light in the past year to make it more bitter and bubbly, rolling out the claim about Bud Light in national television ads that began airing Friday. The company said data it has collected show Bud Light's bitterness and carbonation rose from last year.

Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. called Miller's claims "another marketing ploy" and complained to cable networks that the statements are false.

Now, 10 of 32 cable networks contracted to run the commercials have put them on hold while awaiting substantiation of the claims, said Pete Marino, a spokesman for Milwaukee-based Miller, a unit of SAB Miller PLC.

Several networks, including TBS, TNT and E!, have held the ads, while others such as CNN, CNN Headline News and Comedy Central continue to air them, Marino said Tuesday. Broadcast networks ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox were not targeted in the ad buys, he said.

"All we're saying that they're doing is that they changed Bud Light and that Miller Lite still has more taste," Marino said. "We need to be very diligent in protecting our taste claim."

Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc. said Monday it has not altered its "winning formula." However, the company added, "our brewmasters are constantly making small adjustments to address seasonal changes in raw ingredients."

Bud Light remains the highest-selling light beer in the world, according to St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch, which also controls nearly half the U.S. beer market.

"We saw negative advertising that included our product, and we were in the best position to explain to the networks that these claims are not true," Anheuser-Busch group vice president of brewing operations, Douglas Muhleman, said in a statement Tuesday.

The dispute is the latest chapter in a bitter skirmish for sales as Americans increasingly experiment with liquor-based drinks and more upscale microbrews and imports. As a result, beer sales have gone flat in the U.S. market.

In the first nine months of the year, Anheuser-Busch saw its share of shipments slip by 1.1 points to 48.7 percent, while Miller was flat at 18.2 percent, said Benj Steinman, publisher of trade newsletter Beer Marketer's Insights.

"Irrespective of who's right on whether the taste changed, it's a continuation of a campaign Miller has had for two years," Steinman said. Miller's attack in the light beer segment since 2003 helped turn around its flagship Miller Lite last year and steal market share from Anheuser-Busch for the first time in nearly three decades.

But the offensive has turned off some broadcasters.

Last December, CBS and NBC pulled three Miller ads that took aim at Bud Light and Budweiser, with CBS calling the ads "disparaging."

In April, the Treasury Department's Alcohol and Tobacco Tax and Trade Bureau rejected Anheuser-Busch's complaints about Miller advertising, which said Miller Lite had "more taste and half the carbs of Bud Light."

A spokesman for Turner Broadcasting System, a subsidiary of Time Warner Inc., would not comment. A spokeswoman for E! Entertainment Television Inc. said the company does not comment on specific advertisers.

The latest commercials depict a court setting, where Miller Lite's taste is judged against a "changed Bud Light." One ad features rapper Flavor Flav as an expert witness.