BY TABATHA RENZ AND RYAN NORTON: Do you remember the Super Bowl commercial about the soldier coming home from Afghanistan? It silenced rooms and induced a few tears during an otherwise noisy afternoon of football and commercials. Budweiser’s “A Hero’s Welcome” has over 9 million views on YouTube. As heartwarming as it was to see Lieutenant Chuck Nadd atop a Clydesdale-drawn carriage, one can’t help but feel the scripted commercial paints an unrealistic version of deployed service members’ return home. Worse, the appended #SaluteAHero at the end of the video is a thoughtless call to action. While Budweiser has probably received enough positive praise from advertising executives and sold enough beer to justify the commercial, it does little to actually help our returning military service members.
Not surprisingly, the scripted commercial paints a rose-colored picture of returning from a military deployment. It isn’t the first time Anheuser-Busch has done this. In 2005, their spot “Thank You” featured militarily uniformed actors walking through an airport to a staged standing ovation. While one could debate whether or not service members deserve tickertape hometown parades and standing ovations, it is unhelpful to put that ideal forward as a call to action. Just to film this commercial Lieutenant Nadd, a West Point grad and helicopter pilot, was actually sent home early from Afghanistan. Hours later he was flown home to Winter Lake, FL on a private jet. Nadd, his primped girlfriend, and his affluent white Florida town all convenient winners of a VFW “contest.” Budweiser, its 60 crewmembers, and volunteers from the town prepped for two weeks to capture every detail of the young couple being carted through town by the Budweiser Clydesdales. Ignoring the fact that this implicit endorsement of a corporate product likely violates military ethics regulations, the reality is that most service members don’t receive such VIP treatment or fanfare.
During most returns home, extended family members of the service member cannot make it to greet the plane or attend the arrival ceremony. Immediate families that can greet their service member anxiously wait weeks until the precise day of return. Such families are hardly ever camera ready, and when the cheers of the families die down, soldiers are typically unceremoniously driven home in the family car. Other times, there is no family to greet, and single service members hitch a ride to a hotel or back to the barracks. While service members today are typically facing less animosity upon their return than those from Vietnam who were spat upon and ridiculed for their service, today’s homecomings are less than perfect.
Understandably, a realistic portrayal of returning home wasn’t Budweiser’s main goal. Their goal was to supposedly to create a yearlong social media campaign around the fact that a large number of service members will be returning from deployments this year and will need our support (actually 38,000 troops remain in Afghanistan–down 62% from the June 2011 peak of 101,000). Unfortunately, when this minute long commercial ends and #SaluteAHero is flashed across the screen, the viewer is left empty-handed. If you google or search social media for “Budweiser #saluteahero,” “#saluteahero,” or just “#salute,” you will not find information about military or veterans support organizations. Budweiser’s yearlong media campaign was dead on arrival.
Historically, Budweiser has done a commendable job supporting military veterans. Since 1987, they have donated nearly $11 million to military charities like Folds of Honor, the USO, and Fisher House. They even received the Secretary of Defense’s Outstanding Public Service Award in 2009. How then could $8 million be so carelessly spent on a video, which likely would have gone viral without the Super Bowl timeslot? Considering that Anheuser-Busch has spent $149 million on Super Bowl adds since 2009 and it’s 6-year advertising contract with the NFL cost them $1.2 billion, it’s no surprise the message about actually helping military service members and veterans was lost in the Super Bowl hoopla.
The video that virtually nobody saw during the Super Bowl or after, the one that actually included a sincere message, was a five-minute documentary that Budweiser recorded as a supplement to the commercial. The video features veterans of previous conflicts in Nadd’s hometown of Winter Lake, FL discussing their homecomings and what it means to rally around returning service members. Vietnam vets shared how poorly they were treated upon returning home and how important it is to now honor the sacrifices of our nation’s troops. Veterans of the Iraq war, point out that recognizing sacrifice does not need to include a parade, and a simple “thank you” goes a long way. Why, then, did Budweiser spend millions of dollars to thank Chuck Nadd in Winter Lake, FL, while providing no alternative way to support other service members and veterans?
We can do better. Veterans need help reintegrating and thriving in society, not more parades and standing ovations. Thousands of families lost a loved one in Iraq and Afghanistan, and tens of thousands more were disrupted by injuries. Granted that sort of message doesn’t sell beer, but just before that last shot of the Budweiser logo, there could have been a list on the screen about what viewers can do to help reintegrate our veterans. Veterans and their families need jobs and schooling. They need help to bring the veteran suicide rate down from twenty-two per day. They should be able to access services without floundering for months or years through a backlogged VA. Just imagine the amount of support a mention in a Super Bowl commercial and 9 million YouTube hits could have generated for organizations that support veterans. Instead Budweiser again failed our veterans and their families by choosing to make a patriotic beer commercial.
Originally from Dillon, Montana, TABATHA RENZ is a 2011 graduate of Boise State University. Her interests center on policies that affect veterans and military families during post-deployment reintegration, especially for National Guard and Reserve components. Tabatha is the wife of an Army Reserve Combat Engineer currently deployed to Afghanistan and is employed by the Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America (IAVA). *The views expressed herein are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IAVA or any other entity.
RYAN NORTON is a full-time MPA student specializing in international policy and management. Ryan previously spent five years as an officer in the U.S. Army. He was stationed in Hawaii, and deployed to Iraq in 2008 and Afghanistan in 2011. While in Iraq, Ryan led a 35-man platoon responsible for the security and development of a municipal district near Tikrit. In Afghanistan, he served as a Civil-Military Operations Officer and coordinated government institution building and rule of law efforts for a 900-person, interagency task force centered in Jalalabad. He received a BA in political science from the University of Wisconsin-Madison.