Exclusive: Army Squared Off With Budweiser Over Controversial Super Bowl Ad
A popular commercial honored the return of a U.S. soldier from Afghanistan. So how did it get so ugly behind the scenes?
It was seemingly a perfect slice of Americana: A U.S. Army helicopter pilot returns from Afghanistan to a massive, thankful crowd in his hometown. A gray-haired veteran puts an arm around the young lieutenant, telling him the entire event is in his honor. The soldier and his girlfriend ride a horse-drawn carriage through a parade that winds its way through the town, confetti raining down on them like snowflakes. Finally, he spots his flag-waving mother in the crowd and embraces her in a tight, long hug.
The scene was depicted in a popular Budweiser beer commercial that aired Feb. 2 during Super Bowl XLVIII and has been viewed more than 9 million times on YouTube. Featuring Budweiser’s iconic Clydesdale horses, the one-minute clip fades to a simple message: "Every soldier deserves a hero’s welcome."
If only it were that simple. Behind the scenes, the ad’s development bred frustration and legal concerns among Army officials, according to emails released to Foreign Policy through the Freedom of Information Act. Top Army officers even considered issuing a cease-and-desist order against Budweiser’s parent company, beer giant Anheuser-Busch, on Jan. 30, just three days before the Super Bowl. Their concern: The commercial appeared to clearly violate longstanding service policies that prevent active-duty personnel from endorsing private companies or doing anything that could be construed as glamorizing alcohol.
The discussion to issue a cease-and-desist order occurred after the soldier in the commercial, 1st Lt. Chuck Nadd, reported to his commanders that he had done an interview in uniform during his homecoming and did not know that cameras following him were collecting footage that would be used in a Super Bowl ad. The Army ultimately signed off on the commercial, and Nadd appeared on television at the NFL championship game at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., seconds after the 60-second spot aired — but not before a flurry of phone calls and discussions between Army officials and the beer giant days before Super Bowl Sunday.
Army officials declined to answer a series of questions posed by FP, including whether Anheuser-Busch had received approval from appropriate service officials to film Nadd for the commercial, whether the lieutenant’s chain of command knew there were concerns about him participating, and if anyone was disciplined as a result. They also did not answer the biggest question: Why the commercial was ultimately approved despite the bans on soldiers appearing to endorse products or help sell alcohol. But Col. David Patterson, an Army spokesman, did say in a statement that Defense Department officials "ultimately determined" not to pursue a cease-and-desist order.
"The Army did not provide financing, production assistance, technical, or other official support to the Budweiser Super Bowl video," Patterson said. "In fact, a variety of Army agencies and headquarters rejected requests for assistance through January 2014. At no time did we provide support for the commercial; however we did provide support to our soldier after the commercial had been produced."
A spokesman for the beer maker disputed that it had no Army assistance for the commercial, however.
"The Budweiser ‘Hero’s Welcome’ Super Bowl commercial has received overwhelming support, as it reinforces Budweiser’s long-standing relationship with the U.S. military," the spokesman said. "In celebrating one soldier, the spot seeks to recognize the thousands of troops who will return home this year. We had U.S. Army support while producing this ad, which encourages citizens to salute soldiers."
The controversy began in August 2013, five months before the Super Bowl, when representatives of the public relations giant Weber Shandwick, contacted the Army on behalf of Anheuser-Busch. The firm asked for assistance on a separate, but similar project that would have delivered a returning soldier home to his family on a carriage pulled by Budweiser’s Clydesdales on Dec. 10, "National Lager Day." It is not clear whether that would have been used as a commercial, but lawyers from the Army’s Office of General Counsel still declined due to unspecified legal concerns, the emails show.
Anheuser-Busch did not stop there, though. On Nov. 20, Michael Penney, the director of national military services for the Veterans of Foreign Wars organization, approached a different Army official outside the Pentagon in another apparent attempt to win approval. Penney said the company was looking for one soldier from a unit returning from Afghanistan in the following few weeks to appear in a "’Hero’s Welcome’ documentary" that would air during the Super Bowl. The individual chosen needed to meet specific criteria, and would be "the face of all troops coming home this year," Penney wrote. He did not return calls from FP.
"It’s important that this soldier embodies the spirit of dedication, camaraderie, strength, and goodness the American people want so badly to celebrate," the VFW official’s email said. "Their [sic] looking for a family man. Someone who is revered by his hometown and loved by his family and friends. There [sic] looking for someone who is gracious in the face of adversity and adulation alike. In short, he’s got to be okay with surprises."
The search eventually centered on Nadd, a UH-60 helicopter pilot with the 10th Combat Aviation Brigade, of Fort Drum, N.Y. One email by an Army captain obtained by FP says Nadd’s battalion’s leadership was told early in December that the lieutenant had been selected for a VFW program sponsored by Anheuser-Busch that would involve "a welcome home ceremony and the Super Bowl." That occurred despite numerous Army officials away from Fort Drum raising concerns about the legality of the commercial around the same time frame, according to emails obtained by FP. Many of their names are redacted from their emails, but their dialogue is preserved.
"They approached us about two months [ago] and we turned them down – this is an end around," said one Army official. He is identified as the deputy of the service’s community relations division, in a Nov. 18 email.
"I see a possible issue with it being a beer company wanting to do a documentary that will likely showcase the ‘look at us… we’re in cool with Soldiers’ angle (a.k.a. endorsement issues)," said a public affairs officer at Fort Knox, Ky., in a Dec. 2 email.
"Since when does Budweiser do ‘documentaries?”" said a third Army official, from the U.S. Army Film and Television Liaison Office in Los Angeles, on Dec. 5, appearing to question the beer maker’s motives.
Nevertheless, Nadd’s commanders at Fort Drum cleared him to leave his unit shortly after its return from Afghanistan and fly on a private Anheuser-Busch jet to participate in the Jan. 8 event, according to the Associated Press. Beforehand, he was told by his battalion leadership in Afghanistan on Christmas Eve that he would be leaving the theater earlier than he had expected to fulfill an unspecified "public affairs" assignment that included a camera crew following him for a "documentary" about soldiers coming back from the war.
Nadd told the Fox and Friends program on Feb. 3, the day after the Super Bowl, that he did not know the cameras were running for a TV commercial until one week before the ad aired. He expected that he was making a "quick speech" to a VFW group, and said had no idea more was planned. He could not be reached by FP.
"I really hope the message that gets out is that for all the people who have been on two, three or more combat deployments, you know, folks who have come back injured or not come back at all – those are the real heroes," Nadd said on Fox and Friends. "We hope that this highlights that for America."
But before the commercial aired, it appears that sentiment was met with skepticism at the Pentagon. Concerns were ramped up after a captain with Nadd’s brigade at Fort Drum emailed higher-ranking public affairs officials at the Pentagon on Jan. 30 and said he had just found out that Nadd had done an interview while in uniform during the event in his hometown.
"Apparently, 1LT Nadd spoke with the people from Budweiser and the VFW, while in uniform, and this interview is going to be used as part of a joint Budweiser/VFW commercial to be aired during the Super Bowl," the captain wrote others at the Pentagon. "I have not seen this commercial but spoke with 1LT Nadd who says the message he put out was something along the lines of ‘I am not a hero, there are many more people who have made bigger sacrifices that [sic] me.’ 1LT Nadd said he was not aware he would be filming this commercial."
Within hours, the Army’s deputy director of public affairs, George Wright, responded that he had discussed the issue with an Army lawyer, and "she will begin a cease/desist order." Wright’s name is redacted from the Jan. 30 email, but his title and Twitter handle — @Armyspokesman — are still visible. He did not return calls from FP.
The issue moved up the Army’s chain of command until Brig. Gen. Gary Volesky, the Army’s top public affairs officer, and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel’s office finally approved the commercial. Volesky sent an email late that day to Tom Kraus, a brand director with Budweiser, confirming the change of heart.
"We appreciate the cooperative effort you and the VFW undertook in support of our servicemen and women," Volesky wrote, copying a senior civilian official at the Pentagon, Rene Bardorf, on the email. "We have no objection of you using our service member in your piece."
Even that didn’t solve all the problems, however. The following day, Jan. 31, Kraus emailed Volesky to thank him for his assistance and to ask for more help in getting approval for Nadd to appear on television to talk about the experience.
"These are opportunities for all of us to continue the salute to our military," Kraus said. "Currently, [Nadd] is being told that officials in Washington are reluctant to give him approval to speak to the media."
Volesky weighed in quickly and directed Kraus to get in contact with an Army colonel who could help. The Super Bowl began just 48 hours later.
This story has been updated.