Sunday, 2 November 2014

There's a Beer For That: The Tightrope and Falls of Beer Advertising

Tonight, a £10m marketing campaign for beer- not a specific beer, just beer- came to fruition with a TV advert immediately following Downton Abbey on ITV1. This is a big deal. This is big money. This is the outcome of a lot of work by Britain’s Beer Alliance, a well-funded lobby for Big Beer.

This was pretty underwhelming, pretty much a whimper where a bang should have been. As my colleague Craig Heap has already pointed out it does look a lot like the current TV spots for McDonald’s, and is just generally quite unimpressive. But there’s a reason for this. This isn’t just ten million badly spent.

The deck in the UK is stacked against beer advertisers. Stacked heavily. The Advertising Standards Agency makes a point to say that the UK has some of the strictest alcohol advertising rulesin the world, and a year ago the folks behind the There’s a Beer For That campaign fell foul of these rules with their Let There Be Beer TV ad, which was withdrawn following a ruling by the ASA.

Take two has been a more (if you pardon the term) sober affair. There’s none of the exuberance and elation of the banned advert. Its tone and theme seems to be the rather bland sentiment “beer is nice” and yes, beer is nice. Beer is an (often) artfully created product, whose artisans manage to preserve centuries-old traditions while also striving for innovation and excellence. Beer is a product with scores upon scores of variations in style, with a storied history and a gulf of complexity that gets deeper and deeper with each purchase of an oddly-labelled bottle at your local bottle shop. Beer is fun to talk about, fun to compare with other beers, fun to mix with different foods. It’s fun to drink a few different beers in a night, not because you might get drunk but because it’s fun to challenge and entertain the palate.

Beer is more than nice, but it would be tough to get any of this into an advert without it being pulled from the TV.

The ASA used its clout to pull a Kopparberg TV ad in 2011 because it featured people dancing in a nightclub, and this appeals to people under 18. Which I guess is a big “hey, grow up, man” to everyone of legal drinking age who wants to stay out past 23:00.

A YouTube advert for Cell Drinks was taken down in the same year because it featured professional free-runner Tim Shieff doing some sweet parkour moves, and (in their take on the narrative anyway) suggested that if you got pissed you’d become some ace free-runner, which as everyone knows is the direct opposite of how alcohol works.

Let’s take a quick look at the nuts and bolts of the code that led to these adverts being taken off our screens.

Rule 19.3 of the ASA guidelines states:

"Advertisements must neither imply that alcohol can contribute to an individual’s popularity
or confidence nor imply that alcohol can enhance personal qualities.”

It’s illuminating to see how this is handled in advertising for other products.

The current TV spot for the energy drink Relentless features a young music producer becoming an awesome young music producer after drinking Relentless. Before he drank Relentless he was pretty shit. The narrative says as much. He’s unfocused and uninspired. Then he drinks Relentless and is a success.

A recent TV ad for one of the nine million flavours of Lynx deodorant shows women FALLING FROM THE SKY due to the sexual power of Lynx body spray. Previous campaigns for the product included a TV spot that featured an entire island of women flocking towards a man after he sprayed it on.

Some more sexualised Lynx ads have been taken off the air and down from billboards, including a series of very suggestive spots featuring Lucy Pinder, but clearly suggesting that Lynx makes you so attractive that angels and amazon queens want to fuck you is entirely okay.

There is an extreme disparity in the level of sobriety expected of alcohol advertising and that of other products' advertising.

Looking beyond the wording of codes and rules, and into simple issues of ethics, GiffGaff’s recent Hallowe’en YouTube advert begins with three seconds of the unskippable terrified screaming of a woman, making a public viewer look for all the world like they’re watching a video of a woman’s violent assault. This remained up despite opening a huge can of rape culture worms.

Meanwhile a silly beer advert is yanked from the airwaves because the arrival of (not the emptying of) two bottles of beer is shown as an icebreaker.

It’s hard for alcohol adverts to not get pulled.

And here we see a major problem with beer advertising. There’s so little that advertisers can do without getting a multi-million pound advert black-bagged and dragged out behind the chemical sheds. So they take the easy route, a narrow road between black sticky lakes of liquified liquid commercials.

Fosters lager, with its Aussie beach-bum adverts, manages to stay on TV, and also reinforce the shitty message that beer is A Man Thing. Strongbow’s 2013 Earn It ad narrowly escaped being taken out, with a successful argument that it showed Strongbow as a reward for doing stuff rather than the toolkit for success. But the feats in the ad are carried out by a bloke, who is in the presence of blokes, and are stereotypical Man Things.  John Smith’s was, for years, figureheaded by “No-Nonsense Man”.

One of the main characters of the removed Let There Be Beer advert is a woman who, like millions of people worldwide, is fucking choking for a pint after a shitty day of work. But her story got yanked by the watchdogs.

The ASA’s strictures help maintain a status quo in the public face of the industry. It’s a risky move to have any measure of conflict, resolution, creativity or even plot in a TV ad for beer because it’s very easy for an advert to be pulled, because alcohol is a terrible thing, apparently. It’s easier just to have Peter Kay jump in a swimming pool, or have Men Doing Stuff. It’s easy to play to lazy stereotypes because it’s an easy trope that people relate to. But “people” includes more than one gender and while the There’s a Beer For That advert was powerfully bland it did manage to show people drinking beer outside of a stereotypically masculine situation, and those people included men and women.

It’s important that people have choices and an open field in which to make them, and pushing beer as a Man Thing works against the rising tide of beer drinking among women, seeming to suggest that the increased uptake in female beer drinking isn’t relevant. There are many loud, clear and well-informed female voices in the beer industry and advertising needs to show that beer is not a single-gender product, or even a gendered product at all. Taking the pressure off the beer industry in terms of advertising would allow for finer strokes, neater touches, more complex adverts and more room for creativity. The rules-as-written of the code still mitigate against adverts that would suggest that binge drinking is a good idea, or that getting drunk will get you laid, but a lighter hand on the pump from the ASA would give beer advertising more avenues than just Man Shit or incredibly expensive Guinness ad.

Because as it is, right now, straying from these paths is just slipping your crisp tenners into a shredder.


  1. The utterly shite twee poem made my blood boil to the extent that I had to make this -

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