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Natty Light wants to rent your diploma, but doesn’t really want to solve student debt crisis

The brand’s 10-year, $10 million commitment to student debt relief is brilliant marketing—until you look at AB InBev’s political contributions.

Natty Light wants to rent your diploma, but doesn’t really want to solve student debt crisis
[Photo: Seyi Ariyo/Unsplash; Flickr user Dan Keck]

Natural Light is in the third year of a 10-year, $10 million commitment to fight student debt, and this year part of its plan is to pay grads $100 to rent their diploma for an as-of-yet unrevealed reason. It’s also continuing to award the beer brand’s biggest fans who post a video showing how they would celebrate if all their loans were paid off—so long as the video is tagged #NattyStories, #Contest, and #2020 on social media and the Natty Light logo is visible.

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Student loan debt in America has hit $1.6 trillion. Why is a college party- (and college wallet-) friendly brand like Natty Light interested? Daniel Blake, senior director of U.S. value brands at Natty Light parent AB InBev, says that college debt is a financial burden that gets in the way of enjoying and reminiscing on the great parts of college life, and the brand’s 10-year commitment is designed to ease some of that burden. “Our goal in year three is to balance consistency, building on what we’ve already done, while bringing something new that highlights the issue in a way that gets people talking,” says Blake. “We think it’s important to raise awareness and even try to address some of the issues that affect our drinkers most, as long as we can do it in a credible way.”

As a marketing tactic, it’s an inspired move. For a college student, here’s a cheap beer brand that says it cares about the heavy toll that debt can take on your young professional life, just as you’re trying to get it started, while also suggesting that you might want to skip that super expensive class to drink said cheap beer.

As silly as Natty Light’s tone is, student debt is a serious issue, one that has emerged as part of a significant policy debate during the current Democratic presidential primary. Candidates Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have long been advocating for student loan forgiveness and even free tuition. Despite Natty’s $10 million pledge, Blake says the brand and AB InBev aren’t extending that advocacy to actual policy. “Natty doesn’t endorse any political candidate, but we are passionate about helping our community with the real issues they grapple with on a daily basis, like college debt,” he says.

The tolerance for that disparity between marketing action and IRL action has been shrinking exponentially over the years. Like last year when brands like Marriott, Delta Airlines, and Bank of America, which routinely voice support for LGBTQ rights and speak out during Pride, faced a backlash for an event honoring Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro, who happens to have a history of homophobic comments and persecution of gay political opponents. Or how State Street, the company behind the award-winning “Fearless Girl” campaign, hasn’t always acted in ways consistent with its support of gender diversity. At the time of the statue’s launch in 2017, it had only three women on its 11-person board.

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According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Anheuser Busch has donated $3.6 million to Republican candidates since 2016, compared with $1.28 million to Democrats. Just this week, President Trump is once again proposing to end a student-loan forgiveness program for public workers, as well as eliminating subsidized student loans for low-income students. Even most moderate and conservative Democrats also don’t support student-debt forgiveness, at least as a universal or near-universal program. So these political contributions exceed the amount being disbursed to ameliorate customers’ student debt and are at least obliquely working to entrench the very problem Natty Light purports to want to raise awareness for.

Which makes theNatural Light College Debt Relief Program” sound less like an effort to help anyone grappling with real issues—and more like a classic ad slogan from another light beer: tastes great, less filling.

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About the author

Jeff Beer is a staff editor at Fast Company, covering advertising, marketing, and brand creativity. He lives in Toronto.

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