A Wisconsin judge on Friday ordered Anheuser-Busch to stop suggesting in advertising that MillerCoors’ light beers contain corn syrup, wading into a fight between two beer giants that are losing market share to small independent brewers.
U.S. District Judge William Conley for the Western District of Wisconsin granted a preliminary injunction sought by MillerCoors that temporarily stops Anheuser-Busch from using the words “corn syrup” in ads without giving more context.
MillerCoors sued its rival in March, saying St. Louis-based Anheuser-Busch has spent as much as $30 million on a “false and misleading” campaign, including $13 million in its first commercials during this year’s Super Bowl. The ad showed a medieval caravan pushing a huge barrel of corn syrup to castles for MillerCoors to make Miller Lite and Coors Light. The commercial states that Bud Light isn’t brewed with corn syrup.
Chicago-based MillerCoors and Anheuser-Busch have the biggest U.S. market share at 24.8 percent and 41.6 percent, respectively, but they’ve been losing business in recent years to smaller independent brewers, imports, and wine and spirits, according to the Brewers Association.
Anheuser-Busch’s ad drew a rebuke from the National Corn Growers Association, which thanked MillerCoors for its support. In its lawsuit, MillerCoors said it’s “not ashamed of its use of corn syrup as a fermentation aid.”
Corn syrup is used by several brewers during fermentation. During that process, corn syrup is broken down and consumed by yeast so none of it remains in the final product. Bud Light is brewed with rice instead of corn syrup, but Anheuser-Busch uses corn syrup in some of its other beers, including Stella Artois Cidre and Busch Light.
MillerCoors hailed the ruling and said Anheuser-Busch should be trying to grow the beer market not “destroy it through deceptive advertising.”
“We are pleased with today’s ruling that will force Anheuser-Busch to change or remove advertisements that were clearly designed to mislead the American public,” said MillerCoors CEO Gavin Hattersley.
Anheuser Busch didn’t immediately respond to a message seeking comment. In the past it has defended the ads, saying they were truthful and designed to bring consumers “transparency” about what’s in the beer they drink.
Judge Conley also denied an Anheuser Busch motion to dismiss the case, saying it was likely to succeed in proving misleading statements and some harm to the reputation of MillerCoors.
MillerCoors maintains Anheuser-Busch is preying on health conscious consumers who have negative connotations of corn syrup, sometimes confusing it with the high-fructose corn syrup in sodas.
The feud threatens to disrupt an alliance between the two companies to work on a campaign to promote the beer industry amid declining sales.