PORTLAND — A football commercial aired during an NFL game has led to a lawsuit pitting a Pendleton brewer against one of the largest beverage companies in the country.
Suzie’s Brewery Co. filed a lawsuit on Feb. 2 against Anheuser-Busch in U.S. District Court in Portland, alleging that the company’s advertising campaign for a new hard seltzer product was misleading and harmed its own product, Suzie’s Organic Hard Seltzer.
“Using the bully-pulpit its massive national advertising budget allows, Anheuser-Busch has premiered a new false and misleading advertising campaign aimed at convincing health-conscious drinkers that its new organic hard seltzer is a unique, one-of-a-kind product,” Suzie’s Brewery’s complaint states. “To be clear, it is not.”
Suzie’s Brewery President Chris Barhyte said he first learned about the potential conflict when friends and family started contacting him about a commercial that was running during a slate of NFL playoff games on Jan. 24.
The commercial touted the qualities of Michelob Ultra Organic Seltzer before stating that it is the “only nationally USDA certified organic hard seltzer.”
Suzie’s Brewery is a subsidiary of Barhyte Specialty Foods, a company known for its mustards and other sauces. Suzie’s Brewery launched its hard seltzer over the summer, emphasizing its organic ingredients and displaying the “USDA Organic” logo on its packaging.
According to the lawsuit, Suzie’s Brewery started researching the rest of Anheuser-Busch’s advertising campaign and media presence and found that Michelob Ultra was also described as the “First of its-kind organic option to the hard seltzer category” and the “First-ever national USDA certified organic hard seltzer.”
Barhyte said new competition is actually a good development for Suzie’s Brewery because it raises awareness about the organic hard seltzers. But Suzie’s Brewery didn’t want Anheuser-Busch confusing consumers into thinking it was the only option available.
Barhyte said Suzie’s Brewery sent the beverage giant, which owns brands like Michelob, Budweiser and Rolling Rock, a cease and desist letter. When Anheuser-Busch neither ceased or desisted, Suzie’s Brewery filed the lawsuit seeking to prevent the company from describing Michelob Ultra seltzer as “first” or “first-of-its-kind” or “only,” in addition to damages and attorney’s fees.
Despite the legal action taken against it, Anheuser-Busch is standing behind its advertising campaign.
“Michelob ULTRA Organic Seltzer is the first national hard seltzer that is USDA-Certified Organic,” an Anheuser-Busch spokesman said in a statement. “We are looking forward to vigorously defending this factual statement.”
Attorneys for Anheuser-Busch filed a response on Feb. 2, arguing that its advertisements weren’t inaccurate because it always paired descriptors like “first” and “only” with the adjective “national.” Anheuser-Busch stated that using “national” made the commercials accurate because Michelob Ultra seltzer was nationally distributed, available in 49 states to Suzie’s Brewery’s six. The company added that Michelob Ultra wasn’t even Anheuser-Busch’s first organic hard seltzer, but the other brand was only distributed regionally.
Suzie’s Brewery initially wanted a ruling before the Feb. 7 Super Bowl because it was concerned that Anheuser-Busch would air a similar ad. But the commercial doesn’t feature “first” or “only” USDA-certified organic hard seltzer language, so the hearing was delayed until after the game.
The Super Bowl commercial features a montage of celebrities praising Michelob Ultra seltzer, only to later reveal that the stars were all portrayed by lookalike actors.
“But in a world where most things seem real ... sometimes they’re not,” the real Cheadle said in the commercial as he ziplines onto a boat to confront his doppleganger.
The ad is meant to encourage potential customers to seek authenticity in their organic hard seltzers. But given the circumstances of Suzie’s Brewery’s case against Anheuser-Busch, Barhyte found the commercial ironic.