Anheuser-Busch InBev has scored a major victory in its long-running legal dispute with Molson Coors over Bud Light ads that mocked Miller Lite and Coors Light for using corn syrup.
Molson Coors sued its larger competitor over the ads that first aired in the 2019 Super Bowl, claiming they were misleading. Molson won some early rounds, including getting a preliminary injunction that forced Bud Light to stop using certain language in ads.
But on Friday, a federal appeals court delivered AB InBev a clear-cut victory. “If Molson Coors does not like the sneering tone of Anheuser-Busch’s ads, it can mock Bud Light in return. Litigation should not be a substitute for competition in the market,” the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals stated in a tersely-worded ruling.
The battle, which came to be known as “Corngate,” began when Bud Light ran three Super Bowl ads as part of its medieval "Dilly Dilly" campaign that called out Coors Light and Miller Lite for using corn syrup. Molson Coors has maintained that the beers use corn syrup in the fermenting process, but that none ends up in the final product.
The appeals court pointed to the fact that the beers list corn syrup as ingredients.
The ruling states: “Molson Coors insists that a list of ‘ingredients’ differs from what the finished products ‘contain.’ That’s possible, and the omission of alcohol from the list of ingredients could support a conclusion that Molson Coors treats that word as a synonym for ‘inputs.’ Yet common usage equates a product’s ingredients with its constituents—indeed, some of Molson Coors’ own managers testified that a beer ‘contains’ what’s on the ingredients list.”
The case was sent back to the district court to decide “whether any question remains for trial, or whether our decision instead wraps up the proceedings.”
From a practical standpoint, the decision won’t have much effect on current advertising, because Bud Light has mostly moved on from the campaign. Both brewers are currently focusing most of their marketing on coronavirus response ads.
In a statement, AB InBev said: “We are pleased with today’s decision. We have said since the beginning that this lawsuit brought by Molson Coors is baseless. Right now our focus is on supporting our employees, our communities, and our business partners during this unprecedented crisis.”
Molson Coors Chief Communications and Corporate Affairs Officer Adam Collins in a statement said: “Anheuser Busch and Bud Light intentionally misled American consumers. That is unfair to the American people and we believe it is unlawful, which is why there have been multiple federal rulings against Anheuser Busch in this case.” As for next steps, he said: “We are disappointed with the 7th Circuit decision and we are exploring our options to continue holding Anheuser Busch accountable.”