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‘Extortion Racket’: Big Brands Promote Polarizing Personalities To Boost CEI Score


“It” girls have always been a major draw in advertising, but what’s driving companies to suddenly choose an it girl who isn’t a girl at all?

Consumers have seen a rash of major brands, including Nike, Bud Light, Crest, and Ulta Beauty  partnering with polarizing trans personality Dylan Mulvaney.

While political pundits are often quick to blame the transgender marketing trend on “woke corporatism,” some are also pointing to a scoring tool from a major Left-wing lobbying group.

Some of the biggest financial companies have been known to use Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) factors as a social credit score when making investment decisions. But attention is turning to how a little-known subset score called the Corporate Equality Index (CEI) is playing an outsized role in companies’ strategy to drive up their ESG rankings. 

The CEI was established in 2002 by the Human Rights Campaign, the largest LGBTQ lobbying group in the world. It assigns a score to companies based on things like whether they offer same sex partner benefits, whether their health insurance covers transgender surgeries, and, yes, whether their marketing campaigns are “inclusive.”

Looking over today’s corporate landscape, you’ll see companies from Coca-Cola and Nestle to American Airlines and Kroger grocery stores touting their perfect CEI scores.

Anheuser-Busch, the company that makes Budweiser, was one of the first corporations to embrace the CEI score as a desirable benchmark starting in 2008. Then, earlier this month, it handed an endorsement deal to Mulvaney, a 26-year-old biological man and former actor who became famous for his viral “365 days of girlhood” TikTok account, documenting his first year as a “girl,” living the childhood he never had.

Mulvaney has since been hosted at the White House and headlined marketing campaigns for women’s products from Kate Spade to Ulta Beauty. Tampax even sent him a box of products to promote. In April, however, Mulvaney’s advertising career struck the most discordant note of all when Bud Light sent him some specially-branded cans to promote on his social media accounts.

Critics characterize the CEI score as an “extortion racket.” They say if companies don’t promote LGBTQ celebrities and themes in their marketing, as the Human Rights Campaign demands, they’ll receive a low score. 

And that matters because the big investment companies like BlackRock and Vanguard reportedly consider the CEI grades as part of a company’s overall ESG score. As political podcaster James Lindsay told The New York Post, “They are chasing these scores because if you are not found to be compliant, you could be de-listed from the portfolios of index funds and pension funds and that’s a whole chunk of money.”

To reiterate – having a low CEI score can negatively affect a company’s ESG score, which can negatively impact a company’s bottom line.

Choosing a controversial figure like Mulvaney may seem like a big risk, but some analysts say not as much as the impact of having a BlackRock or State Street — or any other major investment company — decide to bypass your company.

Up until the last few years, a lot of brands were able to quietly do both. So given the fact that Bud Light’s own social media accounts have gone silent for a week since the controversy erupted, you get the sense the backlash took them by surprise.

Anheuser-Busch put out a statement to Newsweek that seemed to try to distance the company from the politics of partnering with Mulvaney. They said Anheuser-Busch “works with hundreds of influencers across our brands as one of many ways to authentically connect with audiences across various demographics. From time to time we produce unique commemorative cans for fans and for brand influencers, like Dylan Mulvaney.”

And they stressed that they made a personalized can for Mulvaney as a gift and that it’s not for sale to the general public.

Budweiser, however, was already facing decline and some see this as a possible way to shore up a niche market.

In a recent podcast interview Bud Light’s new VP of marketing said the brand has been dying for a long time so this was part of an appeal to women and younger buyers.

“So I had this super clear mandate. It was like we need to evolve and elevate this incredibly iconic brand,” she said. “And what I brought to that was a belief in okay what does evolve and elevate mean? It means inclusivity.  It means shifting the tone, it means having a campaign that’s truly inclusive … And representation is sort of at the heart of evolution … We had this hangover, I mean Bud Light had been kind of a brand of fratty, kind of out of touch humor, and it was really important that we had another approach.”

This time though, Anheuser-Busch’s CEI strategy may have failed to take into account just how substantial the backlash would be, and for once please the big investment firms may not have been worth angering consumers. Since controversy erupted over its “inclusive” marketing partnership with Mulvaney, the company’s market value has dropped by roughly $5 billion, with bar owners saying their sales of Bud Light are down anywhere from 30 to 80%.

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