"Value" lager vs. the student-debt crisis
Plus: State of the Boozeletter™, more Bang lawsuits, and EINSTEIN WATER!
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Natural Light made headlines recently for installing an insanely expensive art sculpture in New York City’s Grand Central Terminal to call attention to the United States’ student-debt crisis. Per the brand’s press release, this so-called Da Vinci of Debt is comprised of 2,600 real college diplomas suspended in midair, and valued at $470M (the price of the educations those documents represent.) This is all part of Natty Light’s previously pledged effort give away $10M over 10 years to help kids pay off college loans. They call it the Natty College Debt Relief Program, which, sure, whatever. This year (year four), the brand says it will distribute $1M total amongst 25 winners.
This sculpture was only erect in Grand Central for a few days back in January, but something about it has been bothering me ever since. I think it’s mostly because, like… sure, it’s nice that Natty Light is giving some dough to student-debtors, but why commission an art installation to raise awareness for student debt? Aren’t we all pretty much aware at this point? Here’s a sort-of answer from Daniel Blake, vice president of value brands (the preferred industry term for low-margin, back-of-the-keg-cave volume players like Natty) at the brand’s parent company, Anheuser-Busch:
The art world is filled with absurd price tags that most people find impossible to justify… That's what made it the perfect medium for this campaign. It's a very fitting analogy for the outrageous cost of attending a typical four-year college. Through Da Vinci of Debt, we hope to inspire action around the college debt crisis and drive more fans to enter for a chance to have the Natty College Debt Relief Program pay down their student loans.
Speaking of outrageous costs, it’s always worth pointing out that these ad campaigns ABI (and, to be fair, its competitors) likes to run positioning itself as generous benefactor tend to cost a fair amount of money to execute—money that could theoretically be used to, y’know, directly address the various crises they claim to be out to solve.
Consider: to find fodder for this installation, Natural Light “rented” real diplomas from real college alumni for $100 apiece. So we’re talking about $260,000 in material costs just to get this thing off the ground (hey-o!) The average student in this nightmare country graduates with around $30,000 in debt, so if the “c-note per diploma” math holds, that means Natty Light could have wiped out 8 students’ debts completely by simply using replicas. Huh!
Now factor in the costs of returning all those diplomas to their rightful (and presumably debt-buried) owners after the fact, plus the rest of the materials, plus the labor, plus the rental space in the busiest train terminal in the country. How many students’ loan burdens could they have completely erased with that money?
And BAH GAWD, the advertising! You don’t do this sort of thing without marketing the hell out of it, which is why Natty launched a few dedicated websites for this campaign, developed a Snapchat lens for it, and is still—as of writing this—running Google search ads about it.
You get the point, or if you don’t, it’s this: all of that shit costs money. If Natty Light actually wanted to put a dent in the student debt crisis, it would be much more efficient to simply use all the dough it earmarked for this PR stunt to buy and erase the debt of those educated debtors who sent in diplomas. Of course, even if Natty Light threw $470M—the supposed “value” of Da Vinci of Debt—at the problem, it wouldn’t go away. But it would change a lot more folks’ lives for the better than its current program. Instead, we can have a costly corporate lager sculpture as a treat while the U.S. student debt soars past $1.7T.
I know it’s trite and cliche to blame stuff on “late capitalism” just because you don’t like it and it makes you feel helpless/insane. But how else to explain “massive multinational firm stages superficial, faux-cultural spectacle to very-nominally defray a smidge of economically disenfranchised students’ debts to predatory, state-sanctioned private loan companies in exchange for glowing PR” besides analyzing the system by which it comes to be?
This whole episode reminds your Fingers editor of something Luke O’Neil of Welcome to Hell World wrote a couple years back about Salesforce cofounder Marc Benioff’s big donation to “fund homelessness research”:
Four thousand people a night sleep on the streets of San Francisco and a family earning “$117,400 a year is considered low income” there according to the Sacramento Bee. Why is that? Hard to say but the CEO of a tech company based in the city is donating $30 million to study the problem.
To be clear: Natty Light didn’t drive students into crippling debt any more than Salesforce marched home-to-home evicting struggling San Franciscans. But both examples, to your Fingers editor at least, reveal a core systemic failure somewhere along the way, right? A bug in the code, if you will. And that breakdown always seems to result in convoluted, culture-coopting, Rube Goldberg-esque corporate beneficence machinery swooping in to “study the problem” or “raise awareness” rather than simply redistributing wealth to people who need it. It’s maddening and perplexing in ways that are truly hard to articulate.
“Sometimes people are confused about what neoliberalism means,” continued O’Neil in his 2019 piece on Benioff’s donation. “That’s it. That’s all the commentary on that I have on that one.” I have just one more thing to add. Corporate “solutions” to the carnage of deregulated profit-seeking (homelessness and student debt, et al.) are persistently, cartoonishly ill-equipped to actually solve those problems because they aren’t meant to. To extend the politics-as-computer code bit: that’s not a bug of neoliberalism, that’s a feature.
Of course the distinction is pretty academic (ahem) for anyone struggling with student debt, so if any Friends of Fingers want a piece of the $1M Natty Light is giving out this year, you’ve got until March 21st, 2021 to throw your hat in the ring. Better things are possible, but until we get there, those “value” beer brand bucks are green, and I sincerely hope you score a few.
State of the Boozeletter™
It’s February 15th, do you know where 1,152 of your closest friends are? They’re on the distro list for Fingers, the most important, prestigious, and intellectually cirrhosed electronic-mail newsletter on the World Wide Web, of course! That’s right folks, after shattering our goal of 1,000 subscriptions by the end of 2020, this runaway train is never coming baaaaaaack, wrong way on a one-way traaaaaaack, and so forth.
Welcome to all the new subscribers who have joined up since last edition, when we reviewed Budweiser’s “super-calculated” Super Bowl sidestep. I’m genuinely very glad you’re here. Newcomers and old heads alike, I have but one humble request: if you like Fingers, tell your friends about it! This project can only continue with your support, so if you’re feeling generous, shout it from the rooftops, wouldja?
And of course, don’t forget to:
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Check out The Fingers Reading Room, where you can shop the books that I’m reading about drinks, food, climate change, gentrification, and more. Several readers have let me know that they’ve bought Benjamin Lorr’s Secret Life of Groceries following Fingers’ interview with him, which is very cool and exactly why I do author interviews. The system! It’s working!
Thanks again for being here, everybody. I appreciate you. Now, back to the #content!
🎵Ain’t no party like a Bang Energy lawsuit…
…because there are a LOT of parties to a Bang Energy lawsuit!🎵 That’s right, brace yourself for the deeply artificial, hopelessly alienating flavor of more upstart energy drink drama, bay-bee! A few weeks back, Fingers regaled the tale of Bang Energy, a Troop-n-Trump-loving South Florida manufacturer of such in-your-face elixirs as Cherry Blade Lemonade and Rainbow Unicorn. The company’s parent, VPX Pharmaceuticals, entered an exclusive distribution deal with PepsiCo, then quickly decided it wanted to renege for ~*~reasons~*~.
An arbitrator ruled against VPX in December 2020, but folks, dem Bang Bois are at it again, this time suing their massive one-time partner via subsidiary Quash Seltzer, LLC. That suit alleges Pepsi is improperly hindering Quash (which makes non-alcoholic “supplements” in flavors such as Radical Skadattle) in its rollout of MIXX, an upcoming line of hard seltzers. Say it again: everything is hard seltzer now. Anyway, all of this is very real, and I give BevNET’s Brad Avery a tremendous amount of credit for covering it without dissolving into puddles of Radical Skadattle himself.
If, for some ungodly purpose, you’d like to bask more fully in the retina-scorching rays of South Florida beverage hucksterism, I highly recommend following VPX head honcho Jack Owoc on Instagram. (His handle is @bangenergy.ceo, duh.) There, you’ll enjoy utterly unhinged rants about fitness, financial success, coenzymes… you name it. It’s a scene, man. If you’re feeling particularly sporty, I recommend scrolling through Owoc’s feed right before going to sleep for some grade-A nightmare fuel. Who needs melatonin when you have millionaire mindset, amirite?!
Anyway, last week Owoc posted a video titled “BANGING OUT MIXX DISTRIBUTOR CONTRACTS” (if the block caps make it seem like he’s yelling, good, that means it’s working.) It is one of the funnier things I’ve seen in 2021 so far.
I’m not going to do a full play-by-play analysis but three quick notes:
The premise of the video is that Owoc is signing “59 contracts” assigning distribution rights for MIXX, all of which are spread out on a kitchen island in front of him. Of course, Owoc is currently unsuccessfully trying to pry those very distribution rights from Pepsi, so these sheafs of paper, even if signed, may or may not carry any legal heft. I was reminded of that time ol’ Donnie Deals himself held a press conference to claim that the stacks of paper in manila folders on the table next to him were his taxes. Same exact (Bang) energy. In the video, Owoc flips through VPX’s latest legal filing, taunts Pepsi’s law firm and individual lawyers by name in the Instagram caption, and—speaking directly to those parties—boasts that “these distributors are not afraid of you.” Iconic shit.
Bang MIXX Hard Seltzer is apparently coming soon. Details are scarce, but if Owoc’s video is to be believed, it’ll be 5% ABV, contain no caffeine, and available in flavors including “Mango Bango” (hell yes Jack) and “Lemon Drop” (eh, you’re better than this Jack.) Why wouldn’t you believe Owoc’s video? Well, at one point, he grabs a MIXX can, taps it, and says, “Look friends, this is real!” Which, y’know: not the most confidence-inspiring product rollout I’ve ever seen. But whatever, I’m all in.
The video features Owoc from two angles: head-on, and side-profile. Why two cameras? No idea. The editor on this cinematic masterpiece cuts between the two seemingly at random for a viewing experience that’s disorienting as hell. We can only hope the effects of drinking MIXX are even half as dissociative and unnerving as the experience of viewing this announcement video.
BANG BONUS: Here’s a list of trademarks VPX filed for starting in March 2020, courtesy of Hard Seltzer News’ Aiden Gentson (emphasis mine):“Mixx, Jump, 5th Fuel, Wetter than Water, Hydro Fuzion, Einstein Water, My Fix, Mixed, Strawberry Blast, Frosé Rosé, Purple Kiddles, Meltdown Secret, Undope, Guess, Sting, Zooz, Fix, Vibrate, The Cure, Vooz, Q, Quiz, Stoked Seltzer, Quash, Hard Hemp…” You get the idea! The “Q” mark is particularly ominous, eh? Welp, see ya later!