Bud Light Seltzer's no good, very bad job
The brand's 'Chief Meme Officer' gimmick devalues creative labor at a precarious moment for American workers
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A couple weeks ago, I published a fake application to become White Claw’s next head of marketing. Some readers, presumably those more tapped into the beverage industry, responded to point out that though the White Claw position had been filled, Bud Light Seltzer had just kicked off a recruiting search for its “first-ever” Chief Meme Officer, and that I might actually apply for that job. At the time, I sidestepped the idea, writing:
Sure, I could apply to be Bud Light Seltzer’s new Chief Gen Z Panderer, as no fewer than several Friends of Fingers have suggested. But I hate that schtick for reasons I’ll get into in some future newsletter.
That future is here, and that newsletter is now. (Strike that; reverse it.) I regret to inform you that the Bud Light Seltzer Chief Meme Officer gimmick/ploy/whatever has only been gaining steam in the intervening weeks since it first crossed the transom here at Fingers HQ.
The “dream job” itself
Even if you don’t have ties to the beverage industry, you may have encountered word as you thumbed through the thicket of badness on your various social-media feeds last week that the effervescent brand extension of this country’s largest light adjunct lager was hiring a Chief Meme Officer.
Finally, you may have thought to yourself, a wave of relief washing over your headline-addled interior as visions of mask-flouting mouth-breathers and bootlicking MAGA hogs temporarily receded to your rearward lobes, some good fun that is entirely disconnected from the throbbing horrors of being.
Then, you probably scrolled along with your day. Another thumb-flick, a new dose of a different poison. The joys of life online in 2020, et cetera.
But had you investigated further at BudLightSeltzerNeedsMemes.com, here are some things you would have learned about this absolutely #ThisIsSoMe jobby-job:
It pays $5,000 per month for three months
It requires you to pump out 10 “fire” memes per week
It includes no healthcare or other benefits
Applicants forfeit the intellectual property of their submissions, whether or not they are selected for the role
Now, your Fingers editor is hardly corner-office material, but one thing that jumps out to me is that the Chief [Anything] Officer at a leading brand in the portfolio of Anheuser-Busch InBev (the world’s largest beer company, with a market cap around $100 billion) probably wouldn’t sign up for a no-benefits job that pays $2,500 pre-tax per pay period and requires you to do, like, actual work.
Right? Of course not! According to Anheuser-Busch InBev’s latest annual proxy statement, published in February 2020 (emphasis mine):
In 2019, based on his employment contract, the CEO earned a fixed annual salary of EUR 1.46 million (USD 1.64 million), while the other members of the ExCom earned an aggregate annual base salary of EUR 2.27 million (USD 2.55 million).
So that’s the ***base*** salary for the rest of ABI’s c-suite, which includes neither the additional millions in variable compensation, stock options, etc., nor the unstated but very-real benefits of being some of the most powerful people in the global consumer packaged goods (CPG) game.
It’s going to be awkward when the new meme-making member of ABI “ExCom” finds out what all his/her fellow bigwigs are making, amirite?!
Money for nothin’, headlines for free
I kid, I kid. Despite the important-sounding title—the supposed significance of which the company is none too coy about in its call for applications—this position obviously won’t actually translate to bigwig status at ABI, or even that of its North American subsidiary, or even at the Bud Light brand itself.
That’s because this campaign isn’t a hiring process: it’s designed to net headlines, not qualified executive candidates.
“It seems like more than anything, it's just a marketing ploy,” said Zach Sweat, the Know Your Meme associate editor who wrote that site’s entry on the Bud Light Seltzer campaign. “They're just trying to be like ‘Oh, look at us hiring a meme officer and trying to get into that space.’”
Hiring a chief meme officer may indeed be novel, but devising a “job” that will play well on social media and then pitching it as a “story” to beleaguered media knaves mining for something, anything that will help them meet impossible traffic goals… well, there’s plenty of precedent for that, friends. One has only to plug into Google a search term like “dream job alert” to turn up dozens of items touting this or that too-good-to-be-true opportunity (including, to be fair, many published by my former employer, Thrillist.)
In fact, as recently as June 2020, another ABI brand (Devils Backbone Brewing Company of central Virginia) cooked up one of its own—a so-called “Chief Hiking Officer” position, which would pay someone to hike the 2,200-mile Appalachian Trail, drinking beer and creating #content along the way. The New York Post uncritically shilled that position as such:
Love beer and the outdoors? Never want to go back into an office again? Then have we got a job for you!
(What a cheery way to elide the fact that the coronavirus pandemic had/has put millions of Americans on unemployment rolls, and that avoiding the return to office spaces was/is a life-and-death situation for many workers!)
The game is the game, this is the playbook, and big companies like ABI are relentlessly improving their sophistication as players. To them, finding a qualified applicant to fill the role and perform labor for gainful employment doesn’t put points on the board—the media coverage that this sort of gimmick is capable of earning is what does.
“The value is not whatever person they're going to find through this, it's the earned media, or the social media buzz, or a combination of the two,” affirmed one longtime public-relations professional with knowledge of how CPG firms execute these earned-media campaigns. (Fingers granted them anonymity in this case to allow them to speak more freely about how the sausage gets made.)
In this model, the product—memes, in this case—is basically an afterthought.
“They could get the same output from [an ad agency] that they would from a Chief Meme Officer who's 22 and making $5,000 a month,” the incognito pro continued. “But the value in this is that they're getting people to share this and being like, ‘oh my god like this is so me,’ […] I guarantee you that they paid more than $15,000 for the idea, and they will spend more than $15,000 on a recap deck, just to show” what it accomplished.
As for the value of the headlines themselves, they estimated that would “easily” exceed the dough Bud Light Seltzer pays its Chief Meme Officer. Even bad press, like influential media reporters’ derisive tweets accusing the campaign of exploitation and cringe, is good money, said the PR insider: “Unless [a critic] is like ‘they're killing babies!,’ they’ll flag [the negative headline] as neutral, or even positive, because it's still getting the word out.”
Taylor Lorenz @TaylorLorenzThe job pays $5k per month with no benefits and you'll need to create at least 10 Bud Light Seltzer memes per week https://t.co/TTsY5Rh47V https://t.co/5Z7RCDnx83
Understanding the cash and calculation behind the curtain makes that $15,000 look more and more like a pittance, eh? Fun!
Creative labor for “table scraps”
On top of all that, Bud Light Seltzer will almost certainly save money by hiring a young digital creator with little financial stability (thank u, crippling student debt!) or job prospects (thank u, endless recession!)
Assuming 40 memes a month, an hour per meme, and an agency that bills a blended rate of around $200 per hour (the insider’s guesses), you’re looking at about $8,000 a month through an agency just for the memes. So even absent any earned-media value, the brand is still likely to come out ahead on the commissioned content. In the process, it commodifies this labor and lowers its value for all creators across the board.
And of course, the creator will be young—if not because memes are by and large a young person’s game, then because the pay is pretty squarely entry level. “The money they’re willing to dish out for it suggests that they’re looking for someone younger, or who clearly has the time to make 10 memes a week,” noted Terry Nguyễn, a reporter for Vox who also publishes gen yeet (a terrific newsletter about memes, culture, and more from a Zoomer’s perspective) in a recent text exchange with Fingers.
Is $15,000 worth it? “Depends who that person is,” she responded. “If they’re like a 21 year-old college student who really fucking loves Bud Light, why not lol.”
Look, I’m all for people, especially college kids, making money off things that amuse them, and to many folks (me included!) $5,000 a month is not a small amount of money.
Plus, there could be more upside here, if you take a longer view. Some PR-stunt gigs like this probably do have some benefits for some of their winners. Alison Grasso, a video producer and digital creator who in 2016 won an unrelated “dream job” with the restaurant chain World of Beer, said the experience gave her a chance to brush shoulders with beer-industry folks she admired.
“I got to do a lot of awesome stuff,” she told Fingers—even if doing the $12,000-for-three-months gig while holding down her primary job as a video producer was “kicking my ass a little bit.”
And Sweat, of Know Your Meme, hypothesized that Bud Light’s move into the space may actually act as a legitimizing force for meme-creation more broadly in the future, though he was quick to point out that this possibility didn’t make the campaign “fully positive.” So maybe it’s not entirely bad!
But the downside in the here and now is pretty evident. With college kids facing incredible uncertainty as they enter a decimated job market that’s awash in more-experienced, more-desperate workers scrambling to find any port in a storm, it feels pretty tone-deaf for a massive multinational firm to dangle a negligible amount of cash over the fray and have those lowest to the ground try desperately to snatch at it for the amusement of the timeline in a way that undermines the value of the labor they intend to extract from those people! To me, at least! Your mileage may vary!
In that context, Bud Light Seltzer’s campaign “seems like a scammy publicity stunt by a bunch of suits who want to Engage With The Youth (and more specifically, their buying power) without actually shelling out any real money to hire younger workers,” observed independent labor journalist and Teen Vogue and Baffler columnist Kim Kelly in a recent email exchange with Fingers. The fact that the job lasts only for three months underscores that the company views the position entirely as a “throwaway” novelty, she added.
“Given the current state of things, I absolutely wouldn't blame anyone who leapt at the chance to take this kind of gig right now—but shame on the company for offering table scraps when so many people are starving,” concluded Kelly.
About those terms & conditions…
Midway through our text conversation, Nguyễn had another thought. “I also wonder if they’re going to use this influx of applications as an opportunity to shelve ideas for later,” she said. “Because they’re asking ppl to submit their very specific ideas!”
The contest’s official rules state that “[a]ll materials submitted become the property of Anheuser-Busch, LLC and will not be returned,” which seems like a fairly clear indication that Bud Light Seltzer intends to harvest intellectual property from desperate applicants to potentially #leverage down the road. (Yet another way the company can be sure it recoups many multiples of the $15,000 it tosses to the to-be-anointed meme-maker!)
But in the spirit of journalism-brained benefit-of-the-doubtery, I emailed questions about that, and other aspects of the campaign, to Bud Light Seltzer’s point-of-contact on this project, Michael Goon, and Maria Molbogot of Weber Shandwick (the PR and marketing giant that—I guess?—cooked up this whole thing in the first place.)
To my surprise and delight, they promptly set up an interview for me to pose my questions directly to Anheuser-Busch InBev executi—hahaha just kidding. They declined to comment on anything, aside from sending me the correct version of a broken link on their site.
“[J]ust connected with the brand and they would like to kindly pass on the opportunity for now,” Molbogot said.
Their prerogative! In the absence of any exculpatory commentary from the company, though, I have no choice but to report that this is exactly what it looks like: an opportunity you should kindly pass on, dear reader. It’s a joke masquerading as a job, and workers are the punchline. It condescends to digital culture while also exploiting and devaluing digital labor. It asks for a lot and offers very little at a time when millions of Americans are desperate for dough and out of work. If Bud Light Seltzer’s Chief Meme Officer position is a “dream job,” it’s only because working in America is already such a nightmare. So waaa-aake me up, when September ends.
(Nothing will change on 10/1, I was just grasping for a kicker. Please go with it.)