In the first quarter of the Super Bowl on Sunday, in front of nearly 100 million viewers watching on CBS, Anheuser-Busch ran a commercial for its Bon & Viv hard seltzer brand. Two women, clad in cropped short-sleeved collared shirts, played the mythical mermaid founders of the brand and pitched the beverage to a group of talking sharks under the sea.
It generated some buzz and that would have been that. But in subsequent days, some who saw the commercial were reminded of a first-person essay published by Vice in December titled “My Bikini Audition From Hell Shows How Little Hollywood Has Changed.”
The essay, by an actress named Ingrid Haas, detailed a demeaning experience auditioning for a commercial starring a pair of mermaids, though she did not identify the brand the ad was for or the agency that held the audition.
Ms. Haas wrote that she knew she would have to wear a bikini for the audition, but that she was surprised when a male casting employee told the women that they would have to dance in front of the camera for 30 seconds. When Ms. Haas asked why they had to dance, she wrote that the man responded, “Welcome to corporate America. This is how we sell stuff.” There were no women from the casting company present to appeal to, she wrote, and although she was proud of herself for refusing to dance, she was humiliated and angered by the experience.
Anheuser-Busch has acknowledged that the audition was for its Bon & Viv commercial — which did not feature bikinis or dancing — and condemned the behavior that Ms. Haas described.
“The behavior described in the Vice article is completely unacceptable and goes against everything that our brand and company stand for,” Chelsea Phillips, vice president of the company’s Beyond Beer division, said in a statement. “I regret that this individual had this experience. Anheuser-Busch does not tolerate any discriminatory or demeaning behavior. I reached out to the production company who produced the commercial, because we hold our business partners to this same standard.”
It is an embarrassing situation for a company to encounter with a Super Bowl ad, where 30 seconds of commercial time costs upward of $5 million. And it is particularly so for a spot that sought to portray women as stronger and more interesting than the typical beer commercial does. Scantily clad women aren’t exactly a distant memory for Super Bowl watchers, but advertisers have been moving away from such marketing in recent years.
“It is extraordinary that this is still happening after the outrages of #MeToo,” said Cindy Gallop, a former advertising executive and the founder of the website MakeLoveNotPorn. “The fact it’s still happening demonstrates how fundamentally systemic sexual harassment is and that this is about power and abuse of power.”
Stink Films, the production company for the ad, had worked with a casting firm called Broad-Cast, and said in a statement that it would no longer work with the individual described in the essay. That individual was not identified. Dan Cowan, the owner of Broad-Cast, said in an email that “each actor was asked to dance at the beginning of their audition as this was a way to show one’s level of confidence.”
“I do not tolerate any behavior that would make someone feel rushed or uncomfortable,” Mr. Cowan said, adding that he had cast actors in more than 3,500 ads in 25 years and had not previously faced allegations of impropriety. “I have reviewed this internally with my staff to continue to make my office a welcoming environment where every actor feels safe.”
The layers of agencies and employees between Anheuser-Busch and the actors who auditioned for the commercial show how difficult it can be for advertisers to closely monitor how their ads get made. In the past few years, multiple organizations have been pushing to install more women leaders throughout the ad-making process, as commercial directors and agency creative directors.
“The Bon & Viv spot turned out great and I hope we continue to see more female creators and bosses depicted in ad campaigns,” Ms. Haas said in a statement. “My audition experience was unfortunate and unacceptable. I hope we all get more comfortable with women saying no to uncomfortable, degrading or inequitable situations.”
The Bon & Viv ad was the brand’s first Super Bowl commercial and one of several spots from Anheuser-Busch during the game. The brand, previously known as SpikedSeltzer, was purchased by Anheuser-Busch in 2016. The mermaids are considered the “mythical” founders of the label, though the brand was actually created by a man in Connecticut in 2013.
Ms. Gallop said that the complaint should remind brands to demand accountability from their supply chains.
“The really sad thing is that this is the one instance we heard about,” Ms. Gallop said. “This is going down all the time, Super Bowl ad or no Super Bowl ad.”