business news in context, analysis with attitude

by Kevin Coupe

Last week, we wrote about how Anheuser-Busch InBev had produced a Super Bowl commercial for its Budweiser brand with implications that could plunge it right into the middle of the ongoing immigration debate.

You can see the commercial and read the original MNB commentary here.

Called "Born The Hard Way," the minute-long commercial purported to show the arrival of Adolphus Busch in the US from Germany in 1857 - while some of the treatment he got as an immigrant was hostile, the commercial implicitly makes the argument that immigrants make invaluable contributions to the country.

Not surprisingly, there has been some debate about the commercial ... including here on MNB.

Last Friday, we ran an email from an MNB reader that said:

I think the ad is terrific. Adolphus Busch arrived legally and was eager to adopt to our culture and way of life. He immersed himself into the capitalist attitude and did not wait for a government handout to make something of himself.

I objected to the implication that this distinguished Busch from other immigrants. in fact, I think the vast majority of people who come to the US come not for handouts, but for the opportunity to achieve the American dream through hard work. And I wrote:

You might want to be careful about using such a broad brush.  You may get some intolerance on you.

But as is usually the case, I learned stuff from additional emails I got from MNB readers. One, Chad Spiegel, wrote:

Whichever reader said “Adolphus Busch arrived legally and was eager to adopt to our culture and way of life” needs a lesson in beer history.  Adolphus Busch moved to St. Louis because it was heavily populated with Germans, he started brewing German-style beer to satisfy the German tastes of his fellow German immigrants, and he donated over $9 million (in today’s dollars) to Harvard for the purpose of opening a museum about German heritage.  And his emigration to the U.S. was only “legal” because back in 1857 there were no immigration rules or regulations.

The reality is Adolphus Busch came to the United States to make a better life for himself and his family, and he did so not by forgetting who he was or where he came from but by embracing it.  His efforts to bring German beer to America’s heartland were welcomed by Americans, and as a result our country’s very culture and identify have been influenced by Busch’s German background. That sounds to me like a testament for embracing immigrants and their diverse backgrounds, not trying to silence or ban them out of misplaced and irrational fears.

And another MNB reader wrote:

You might want to have some people check their history, per the reader who was making the point that Augustus Busch was a legal immigrant who worked hard to succeed.

Taking nothing from the point of view or from the Busch legacy, this is a revisionist history.

There was essentially no such thing as either legal or illegal immigration to the US until  the 1880s. You could first be inspected for disease around then, and you might have a residency requirement before being allowed to be a citizen, and there were requirements of the various ports to keep records of your arrival (which were specifically NOT applied to land-arrivals) – but there were no actual restrictions on arriving in the US if you could afford to get here. Except for a brief period under the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798 (discredited, revoked and struck down in various ways) you couldn’t even be legally deported until 1888.

The first actual restriction was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which was famously racist and eventually seen as unconstitutional.  There were no major barriers to anyone else until the 1920s, except for a provision passed in 1903 that rules out “Anarchists, epileptics, polygamists, and beggars” as inadmissible. Ellis Island, the famous entry point in New York harbor, didn’t even open until 1892.
Talking about “legal immigration”, particularly of white Europeans, prior to the 1880s is nonsense.   Busch arrived in 1857. There were zero restrictions on immigration at that time.

So there.

Except that it doesn't end there.

Because it also ends up that, at least according to some historians, the ad is somewhat fanciful about Busch's immigration experience - he was well-do-do, not poor, and likely didn't deal with nearly as much discrimination as other ethic groups.

One might even suggest that the ad trades on what could be called "alternative facts." Go figure.

Which makes the ad look like it was specifically made to address the current debate about immigration and stake out a political position ... especially because it was aired during a Super Bowl in which there was a plethora of commercials that addressed political issues like immigration as either text or subtext.

Except ... the Budweiser commercial was conceived of a year ago and produced before before Donald Trump got elected.
And, because this seems to be the way the world works these days, there now are reports that people who self-identify as Trump supporters now are attempting to engineer a boycott of Budweiser. (Good luck with that one.)

All of this gives me a headache.

I liked the Budweiser commercial, but I think it has to be said that if it had been released six months ago, it would've gotten recognition but never would have generated the kind of controversy that it did last weekend. (I liked the puppy commercials a lot more.)

I'm not a big fan of so-called "alternative facts," but I'm not sure when we started demanding veracity of television commercials. (Isn't the very definition of a commercial that it offers heightened or adjusted reality?)

But the big lesson to me is the degree to which this debate continues to be toxic, and how even when companies do not intend to engage with a political debate, they can easily be dragged into it. And when they do want to engage in political debates ... which is what companies like Airbnb, Audi, and 84 Lumber did last Sunday ... they can create commercials that probably energize some customers and outrage others.

Good lesson. Though it all still gives me a headache.
KC's View: