Anheuser-Busch and Denzel’s Drunken Flight

Denzel Washington’s newest film, Flight, is about an airline pilot plagued with alcoholism. While actual flight plays a relatively small part in the movie, actual alcoholism does not. In fact, alcoholism is what the movie is really about. It is not an action movie with a bit of drama; it is a drama with a bit of action. Some viewers are even expressing feelings of being “deceived” by the film’s trailers; but let’s face it, would a movie about alcoholism really pack the theaters?

Even Anheuser-Busch (AB) is getting in on the action, asking Paramount Pictures, one of the film’s production companies, to hide images of AB products—namely Budweiser beer labels. Robert McCarthy, an AB vice-president, wrote a letter to Paramount claiming that AB had no idea that Budweiser would be portrayed in the movie. In the letter, he wrote:

“We would never condone the misuse of our products, and have a long history of promoting responsible drinking and preventing drunk driving. It is disappointing that Image Movers, the production company, and Paramount chose to use one of our brands in this manner.”

It is also disappointing that AB would think that Flight is remotely “condoning the misuse of their products.” The movie is a disturbingly accurate presentation of the life of an alcoholic; it is not meant to be a glorifying look at the world of alcohol by any stretch. AB certainly understands that their product can be easily “misused” and is more often than not. In fact, in their letter, they admit that they actively “promote responsible drinking.” Isn’t a dramatic representation of an individual addicted to drink also promoting “responsible drinking”? Simply saying “drink responsibly” is noble, but maybe an in your face movie about the “demons” that alcoholics fight every day is also necessary every once in a while. I still remember the effect that When a Man Loves a Woman had on me when I watched it years ago. Alcoholism is a very real problem in America and a hard-to-watch portrayal of a spiraling drunk might be needed from time to time to remind us of alcohol’s destructive potential.

But one must certainly ask why AB would only now be voicing its opposition to the film. How many other hundreds of movies have featured Budweiser labels that were most definitely not promoting “responsible” consumption. In fact, responsible drinking is almost never portrayed on screen. When was the last time you saw a film where an individual—in line with what AB is claiming they promote—refused a drink because he was the designated driver? If AB is going to start protesting how their products are used in movies about hard-core drunks, then they should also start protesting movies about weekend and casual drunks. The party and hook-up culture is on full display in a vast majority of modern films yet nary a peep from AB over these. Why not? What about films like The Hangover or The Big Lebowski? Is comedic alcoholism more acceptable to AB than dramatic alcoholism? Perhaps, but it probably has much more to do with AB seeing an opportunity to sell even more beer.

Matt Patches, a film critic at, had this to say when asked if AB’s consternation over its brand might be nothing more than a publicity stunt: “As they say: all press is good press. We were not talking about Budweiser yesterday.” It would seem that Patches is on to something, especially in light of AB’s lack of concern over how its products are displayed elsewhere on the big screen. As P.T. Barnum was known to say: “I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.” It seems to me that AB’s coy ploy is nothing less than an application of Barnum’s dictum. After all, paid advertising can only get you so far. Taking the opportunities of unpaid advertising when they arise is just good business.