Tuesday, 6 March 2018


There has been a great deal of discussion about offensive branding in the beer industry recently. Not that it's a new thing. Some of us have been talking about it for years. But it is certainly gaining momentum now. In the current social climate people have less and less tolerance for discrimination and exclusion. After all, it really isn't asking all that much to treat everyone equally is it?

The current code is up for review this year

At the Brewer's Congress in November 2017 the Portman Group was referenced in numerous presentations. Speakers from breweries whose products had been reported to the Portman Group for breaching their Code of Practice (on Naming, Packaging and Promotion of Alcoholic Drinks) discussed the process of responding to these complaints.

Beavertown and Tiny Rebel had both been reported to the Portman Group by members of the public for issues with their packaging. Almost identical complaints were received, referencing the sections of the code relating to clear labelling of a beverage as alcoholic, antisocial behaviour, immoderate consumption (NB only against Tiny Rebel), and having particular appeal to under 18s. In short, the implication was that these 330ml brightly coloured cans featuring stylised cartoonish art work might lead to children wanting to drink them. The complaint against Beavertown was ultimately not upheld but the one against Tiny Rebel was.

To be clear, the Tiny Rebel and Beavertown presentations were not specifically about these complaints but they certainly formed part of the story they were telling. I would like to think that they were shared at the Congress for the wider benefit of those in the industry who could learn from these experiences.

Later on we had Alistair Taylor from the Advisory Service at the Portman Group give a presentation on the role of the organisation and how they can benefit breweries. Essentially they exist to regulate the packaging of alcoholic products via their code of practice. In hindsight, there was nothing wrong with the overall message in this presentation - publicising their role and explaining how they can help breweries is definitely something the Portman Group should be doing. But in the heat of the moment this message was a little lost.

When the presentation displayed a complaint about a beer (Wye Valley Brewery's Dorothy Goodbody's Wholesome Stout) which had been reported for breaching section 3.2 (d) of the code (a drink should not... 'suggest any association with sexual activity or sexual success') this was greeted with disbelief by the audience. The Congress had begun that day with Jaega Wise's presentation on women in the beer industry, including many examples of offensive packaging: this audience was not prepared to sit back and accept that this particular complaint had not been upheld because the packaging didn't breach the code.

A complaint from 2008 which was not upheld

If the audience found the packaging offensive then how could this not be in violation of the code? The answer is that the code in its current form mentions sexual references on beer packaging only within narrow margins: a product should not suggest that it makes the consumer more attractive or that it leads to 'sexual success' which is actually quite an unpleasant sounding, masculine phrase. Possibly even a little dated.

When I started reading through previous complaints I was shocked to see that the Wye Valley Brewery complaint is the only one the Portman Group have ever received concerning sexist packaging. I have seen and heard many complaints about lots of different examples of sexist and offensive packaging. If by any chance you haven't seen enough of these already you need only visit Pumpclip Parade. It seems unbelievable that only one of these examples has ever been reported to the Portman Group. Is that because people are not aware of the role of the organisation? Are they unaware that members of the public can report products directly? Or is it because even if they did report a product the code isn't fit (in its current state) to deal with these complaints?

In January Jaega Wise was announced as elected south east director of SIBA. On February 27th a press release from SIBA stated their intent to create a marketing code of practice for their members. There will be an industry discussion on this topic at the BeerX conference this month. Entries to SIBA competitions are already screened to exclude any offensive product branding and in the future this could be extended to all beers sold by SIBA members.

A CAMRA statement from December 2017 by their National Executive they are in agreement with SIBA that sexist branding is not going to be tolerated at their festivals or in publications.

"We abhor sexism and will take action against any CAMRA member who, by their words or acts, is disrespectful of any individual because of their gender. We expect the behaviour of those who work with us, whether in campaigning or at our events, to be consistent with our values. We condemn those who use sexist images or slogans to market their products and will not condone them being stocked at our beer festivals or promoted in our competitions and publications.” 

In the United States, as with all things craft beer, they are ahead of us in tackling this issue. The Brewers Association updated their marketing code of practice in April 2017 to include an additional two lines, stating that beer advertising and marketing materials should not:

i. contain sexually explicit, lewd, or demeaning brand names, language, text, graphics, photos, video, or other images that reasonable adult consumers would find inappropriate for consumer products offered to the public; 

j. contain derogatory or demeaning text or images."

I think it would be desirable to include something similar to this in the Portman Group code of practice.

On Wednesday 28th February I attended a meeting at the Portman Group to discuss how their code might evolve to reflect the current climate with respect to offensive branding of alcoholic products. The code undergoes review every five years and the 12 week consultation period will open shortly (likely to be April to June). Anybody is welcome to express their views. So I would encourage anyone with an interest to get involved and have their say.

Any changes to the code will require the existing guidance notes to be rewritten in order to support the code. This means we are not likely to see the new code in action until the end of 2018 at the earliest. But this time next year we might have a code which is fit for purpose.

Hopefully we will reach a broad consensus across the industry with the Portman Group code providing a minimum standard which all producers of alcohol are required to meet, with a similar marketing codes from SIBA, and supportive policies from CAMRA and the London Brewers Alliance. It is important that all relevant groups are on the same page otherwise we might end up in a position where a particular product's branding is deemed acceptable by one group but not by another.

It is no coincidence that the Advertising Standards Agency conducted an evidence-based review of gender stereotyping in advertising last year. You can read the full report here Depictions, Perceptions and Harms. It's very interesting stuff. If you dislike those product adverts on TV which display men as incapable of performing the simplest of household tasks, you're going to like this.

The times, they are a-changing. Finally.

Further evidence that we are all heading in the same direction is provided by two recent examples of breweries deciding to change their product branding in response to numerous complaints on social media. Both breweries were experiencing reputational damage from the complaints they received but they chose to resolve the issue in different ways.

Castle Rock's Elsie Mo is a golden ale which first appeared in 1998, featuring 'pin up' artwork on the pump clip. In 2007 the brewery chose to digitally enhance the pin up a la Lara Croft and then in 2014 they decided to 'modernise' the artwork to show a woman in a pilot's uniform, kicking up her legs to reveal stockings and suspenders. Eventually in January 2018 Elsie Mo became a pilot, who can be seen flying a plane (whilst fully clothed). You can read the full story directly from the brewery.

Station 119, a Suffolk brewery founded in 2014, also chose to go down the pin up route with their branding. Here is their description of the original imagery on their packaging.

Our labels take inspiration from the WW2 tradition of decorating the airplane noses which helped to popularise pinup art. This art form is considered by many to be a positive post-Victorian rejection of bodily shame and a healthy respect for female beauty.

Following some criticism of their branding at the close of 2017 the brewery opted to change their labels - not because they felt they got it wrong the first time, but because it was affecting sales.

Some of the responses to these positive changes made by breweries have been predictable but are still a little disappointing. The title of this blog post is a direct quote made in response to the Station 119 Facebook post announcing their new branding. Sure, it's laughable that some people think that way, and yes these dinosaurs are in the minority, but in too many cases there is a spiky barb of misogyny underneath. So the work is far from over.

I've saved you the trouble of reading the comments on the DM article

However, I feel more positive about this issue than I have for a long time. Yes, there is a (decreasing) minority of people who want to live in the past but regardless of their outdated views, we are moving on. 

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