The Gay Country Star From CMT’s Nashville Lands a (Fictional) Budweiser Ad in Progressive Integration

Multi-episode arc, tied to Pride Month, kicks off tonight

The faux Budweiser spot, starring gay Nashville character Will Lexington, will air during the show's July 6 episode.
Mark Levine

Budweiser is celebrating LGBT Pride Month in a groundbreaking way: by signing an openly gay country star to appear in a new spot for the brand as “the pinnacle of masculinity.” Or at least, that’s occurring on CMT’s Nashville, which kicks off a multi-episode integration with Budweiser beginning with tonight’s show.

In the storyline—which sprung in part from a CMT and Budweiser deal during last year’s upfronts—the show’s openly gay country singer, Will Lexington (played by Chris Carmack), is wooed by Budweiser to become a brand spokesman. In two weeks, he films the commercial, which airs in its entirety on the show.

In the spot, set in a small western town, Will is dressed as a cowboy, clad entirely in black. He tames a wild dog, saves the lives of a few unsuspecting townies and, after being warily sized up by tough-looking locals at the bar, downs a bottle of Budweiser and is welcomed into the fold. While the faux spot won’t air until the July 6 episode, Adweek has a first look at the scene here:

The Budweiser integration, which kicks off during Pride Month, is breaking down stereotypes about country music audiences—and the brands that are trying to reach them.

In tonight’s episode, Will is struggling with the idea of being a spokesperson singing about “mops or fertilizer” until his boyfriend— Silicon Valley billionaire Zach Welles (played by Cameron Scoggins)—tells him of Budweiser’s interest, and explains its importance: “Imagine John Wayne coming out of the closet: an openly gay man portrayed as the pinnacle of masculinity. … It would be historic.”

Then, in the July 6 episode, Will meets with Budweiser’s agency and is pitched the creative for the spot: “The Man in Black comes to town, and he’s Will Lexington. Country star, openly gay … and no big deal about it. Pretty great message of inclusiveness, I’d say.”

Later in the episode, Will films the spot, and then screens it—in its entirety—at his label, Highway 65. The sponsorship is mentioned in a third episode as well.

The Budweiser integration, which kicks off during Pride Month, is breaking down stereotypes about country music audiences.

The storyline seems to parallel Empire’s innovative partnership with Pepsi two years ago. One of the most organic TV integrations of all time, it was a multi-episode arc in which the soda brand wooed Jamal Lyon (Jussie Smollett) to be their new spokesman. Then, as the show’s characters prepared to watch the new spot, the show cut to a commercial break, and the complete Pepsi spot aired during that pod.

However, showrunner Marshall Herskovitz said he was unaware of the Empire-Pepsi partnership prior to being informed about it by Adweek. Instead, he explained, “we were quite interested in the way in which brand integrations are being seen more often in the world of country music,” such as Nationwide’s spots with Brad Paisley.

In the storyline, a new partner in Highway 65 suggests that the label will need to be open to brand integrations to help its bottom line. “At first there’s some suspicion about that, as there often is in the artistic community; certainly in my generation. We wanted to explore the possibility that there could be really positive brand integrations that helped everyone,” said Herskovitz.

Herskovitz was intrigued by the idea that Will “would be approached by a brand that was iconically American and masculine, and asked to be the avatar of that brand,” he said. For CMT, “there was this real authentic opportunity for us to then bring a sponsor into that conversation,” said Adam Steingart, svp of integrated marketing, CMT.

A Bud-ing partnership

An obvious choice was Budweiser, which had struck a deal with the network during last year’s upfront negotiations. “Budweiser came to us to further connect them to the modern county fan,” said Steingart, noting that when CMT acquired Nasvhille last summer after the series was canceled by ABC, “it opened us up to a number of advertisers that we hadn’t typically done business with in the past.” Another was Coca-Cola, which participated in a multi-episode integration on the series earlier this season. (CMT hopes to reach even more new advertisers next year, as the network has already picked up Nashville for another season.)

“We wanted to make sure that we were bringing a partner that had that iconic Americana association with it, but also had strong country roots,” said Steingart. “It’s finding something that feels like it could actually happen in real life, and you’re creating a storyline that feels like it’s an authentic experience for the fans at home.”

The idea “immediately felt like a great fit for Budweiser,” said Budweiser vp Ricardo Marques, noting that the brand has partnered with country stars like Thomas Rhett and Florida Georgia Line, and sponsors country music festivals like CMA Fest and Stagecoach. “With Budweiser’s strong country music roots, we felt integrating into Nashville was a natural fit and an authentic way to showcase our brand to viewers.”

The company also embraced the show’s progressive storyline. “As a company, Anheuser-Busch is dedicated to promoting an organization of inclusivity and equality,” said Marques. “Over the recent years, both Budweiser and Bud Light have supported pride organizations and events through both national and regional partnerships and sponsorships.”

The storyline seems to parallel Empire’s innovative partnership with Pepsi two years ago.

Budweiser was “very easy to work with,” said Herskovitz, explaining that most of the brand’s notes had to do with the slogan and logo that would appear within the faux ad. “They were really hands-off.”

As opposed to the Nashville team, which “ended up spending a great deal of money over our normal budget in order to make that commercial be just right,” said Herskovitz. “It’s not just that every second counts, it’s every part of a second counts in a commercial. So the level of care and difficulty is much higher than making a television show. But it turned out to be really a fun thing.”

While the faux Budweiser campaign on the show is a success, the storyline includes two other failed integrations, using fictional companies. One of the partnerships falls apart as a result of a Nashville character, while the other “was the classic case were the client was out of control,” said Herskovitz. “So we ended up showing a very balanced view of how these brand integrations can work.”

Unlike the Empire-Pepsi partnership, where the commercial aired outside of Empire, Nasvhile’s Budweiser spot will only exist within the episode, though CMT will share it across their social handles. While that was the plan from the beginning, “our aspiration was that we would do such a great job that they would want to use it as a commercial,” said Herskovitz.

No luck: while Budweiser is “really proud” of the Nashville integration, Marques said there are no current plans from the brand to use the faux ad outside of the episode itself.