Anheuser-Busch, the NFL's $1.2 billion beer sponsor, released this statement in response to all the women and children being smacked around by football players in recent months:
"We are disappointed and increasingly concerned by the recent incidents that have overshadowed this NFL season. We are not yet satisfied with the league's handling of behaviors that so clearly go against our own company culture and moral code. We have shared our concerns and expectations with the league."
You will immediately notice that A-B is not actually doing anything, or even threatening to do anything, or even hinting at the possibility of considering maybe doing anything. But even this milquetoast statement, which doubtlessly required many fraught committee meetings to see the light of day, is still a pretty big deal.
Sponsors don't talk like this—not unless they're terrified that continued association will be bad for business. As TD Ameritrade told the Associated Press, "[W]e carefully monitor the effect it has on our business and brand, and if we feel those assets are being compromised, we'll make the appropriate decisions."
Just last week PepsiCo was assuring the public that it was "encouraged to see the NFL is now treating this with the seriousness it deserves." FedEx released a statement that it was "confident that the League will take the appropriate steps." Today's statement from Anheuser-Busch is a startling change of tone; anything less than full support is, in the couched language of sponsorship diplomacy, a rebuke.
And this very much matters. Sponsorship money is really the only thing that moves the needle—it's what forced the NBA into shoving Donald Sterling out the door earlier this year. And in all likelihood it's what's going to force the Vikings to suspend Adrian Peterson before the week's out.
Last night, the Vikings lost Radisson because of the team's support for Peterson. Just today, Peterson has been dropped as a paid spokesman for pharmaceutical manufacturer Mylan, and his likeness has been taken down from the Wheaties website. And there's this report:
Peterson's done. Mark it down now. He's lost Wheaties and Nike, he's lost America.
So maybe Anheuser-Busch isn't taking back its money or pulling its ads. But these things have a domino effect, like the one Radisson set off last night. A-B issues a critical public statement that didn't need to be public or critical—and gets praised for doing so—and now who knows what happens? Maybe the other brands decide to scramble for a piece of that moral high ground. And if enough of them do so? That's the sort of pressure that tends to squeeze out a change.