Seventh Circuit Rules that Mocking Miller Lite and Coors Light in Ads is Fair Play

In a case alleging that Anheuser-Busch’s Bud Light ads wrongfully said Molson Coors’ beers contain corn syrup, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals reversed previous rulings in their final judgment and decided there was no issue with the ad campaigns.

The plaintiff, Molson Coors Beverage Company USA LLC is represented by Quarles & Brady. Anheuser-Busch Companies LLC is represented by Dowd Bennett. The case concerns an Anheuser-Busch ad campaign from early 2019 which said Bud Light was made using rice while Miller Lite and Coors Light use corn syrup. Molson Coors responded with an ad campaign saying the corn syrup used in making their beers improves the taste. They also responded with the legal complaint, claiming that although their beer is made from corn syrup, it does not necessarily contain corn syrup.

“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,” said the opinion in the case, written by Judge Frank Easterbrook.

The opinion, which was written on behalf of a three-judge panel, said they concluded the case is simple. “The basic contention has been that the true statement ‘their beer is made using corn syrup and ours isn’t’ wrongly implies that ‘their beer contains corn syrup.’ Molson Coors acknowledges that Miller Lite and Coors Light are made using corn syrup, while Bud Light is not.”

Molson Coors lists corn syrup as an ingredient in both of their light beers, but insist that the list of ingredients is different from what is contained in the final product. Easterbrook says that is possible, as alcohol is not on the list of ingredients saying the list contains instead inputs. “By choosing a word such as ‘ingredients’ with multiple potential meanings, Molson Coors brought this problem on itself,” the judge states. They said it is not wrong for a seller to say or imply of their rival something the rival is already saying about themselves.

The opinion says the three best-selling beers in the United States include Miller Lite, and Coors Light both produced by Molson Coors, and Bud Light produced by Anheuser-Busch. The two companies “regularly attack each other” in advertisement campaigns.

Judge William M. Conley in the Western District of Wisconsin initially ruled that Anheuser-Busch could advertise that their product, Bud Light, is made using rice while Molson Coors is made using corn syrup. The ruling specified that they could not say or imply that Molson Coors’ products actually contain corn syrup and clarified that most, but not all, of Anheuser-Busch’s advertisements were permissible. Molson Coors appealed this decision. The district judge also ruled that Anheuser-Busch could not use packaging that says “no corn syrup,” which was appealed by Anheuser-Busch. 

The final judgment denied Molson Coors’ request for an injunction and reversed the decision that some of the Bud Light advertising was not in line with advertisement laws. The case will return to the district court for further proceedings and a decision on whether there is a further question to merit a trial.