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Beer Branding and Sexism

August 16th, 2015 Posted by Feature 7 comments

Recently I came across a picture of a few cans from Old Flame Brewing for their Blonde, Red, and Brunette, and the comment accompanying the picture asked people what their ‘favourite’ was.  Most replies to the question all played along – participating in the obvious underlying theme in the designs.  If you go on Old Flame’s website (http://oldflamebrewingco.ca/#AboutTheBrands) you’ll see that they also have a ‘Dirty Blonde’.  It should be noted that not all of Old Flame’s branding follows this theme as they do have other names that simply play on the notion of strained relationships (which I think is somewhat original).   When I saw the picture, I was curious whether other people had similar questions to mine – that is, are they crossing a line?

Given my non-confrontational manner I wasn’t quite sure how to go about addressing this question, so I sat on this for a bit and gave it some thought – which led me back to university.  While majoring in sociology I learned the principles contained in the idea of teaching controversy: that is, when approaching topics such as sexism it is integral to do so in a way that encourages open dialogue.  Often our instincts are to attack, resulting in defensive and anger-filled reactions that impede any potential for ‘unlearning’ (I say unlearning because sexism is learned through interaction – knowledge is constructed by us about us).  I think sometimes this instinct to attack also happens in our everyday lives – we witness something we feel is sexist and lash-out rather than engage in an honest conversation, and this is a missed opportunity for us.  I’m saying this because I want this to be an invitation to engage in an honest conversation about sexism and beer; I don’t want this to be about finger-pointing.

Given this, the Blonde, Red, Brunette, and the Dirty Blonde caught my attention because they utilize a common mechanism – images of females are reduced to attributes associated with preferences in beauty and organized by these associations, and the cans are then sold and purchased as commodities.  Yes, the labels are elegantly designed but they are also a pretty clear example of objectification; the type of objectification that exists within the dichotomy of subject and object.  That is, in a male-centric culture the subject is typically the male and its possession, the object void of volition, is the female.

To be fair, Old Flame is not utilizing extreme sexual objectification: the labels are not violent and they don’t have ‘rapey’ undertones.  There are certainly worse examples out there – e.g. Pig Minds’ PD California Ale or Le Corsaire’s La Tite Pute (which has since been renamed).  When compared to these examples, it is clear Old Flame’s branding is definitely on the milder side of the spectrum – but does that make it okay?  Shouldn’t the goal be to avoid being on this spectrum?  Is the spectrum not all born out of the same misogynist and sexist discourse?

When I contacted Old Flame they replied that they had not received any criticism or push-back to the labels and that the branding is supposed to have a “very playful and respectful tone.”  And this brings up a question that needs to be explored: is it possible for this type of branding to be playful and respectful?  In the more extreme cases the answer is obviously no – with Old Flame I’m not sure what the answer is and my hope is that this piece will lead to a good conversation exploring this issue.

As I discussed this with different people I received some very good questions.  First, is there anything inherently bad about using an image of a female on a label?  No, but execution is critical.  In the case of Old Flame I think the use of objectification in the design and naming conventions, effectively removing personality and agency, has the potential to lead to some very sleazy conversations.  Which leads to another question – whose responsibility is it?

To borrow an example, if I place two melons on a counter and a group of men see the melons and start objectifying women, is that my fault?  No; and Old Flame can’t control the type of conversations their branding elicits.  That being said, they also can’t claim to be unaware of the industry they are in – and although I am completely guessing here, someone at Old Flame had to have known what types of conversations their branding could start.  And even if they didn’t?  Going back to the melons, if I hear the conversation those men are having do I walk away or do I remove the melons?  So yes, perhaps I do expect Old Flame to take some responsibility for what they put out there – even if their intentions were not explicitly sexist.

Normally when thinking about sexism and beer branding we think of historical examples or of certain big breweries and their outdated advertising, but as witnessed with many beer labels that are adorned with passive female figures or ‘witty’ names, perhaps beer culture hasn’t evolved as far as some of us would like.  How does beer branding that perpetuates and contributes to a social discourse of female objectification continue to exist?  Why do some breweries continue to make these branding choices?  Is it because beer as a category is mostly populated by men (as producers and consumers)?  Is this why we accept justification/reasoning such as ‘it’s just light-hearted fun’?   If this is the case it speaks to a very serious issue – that despite claimed progress in equality, when left on our own, boys will still be boys.  Or is this simply a lack of creativity which results in the reliance on old formulas and approaches (which doesn’t make it okay) – if this is the case, well then that’s just lazy.

There’s also the issue of assuming that just because a female deems potentially-offensive branding as okay, it gives the brewery a free-pass.  Firstly, all females do not think/feel/react the same way.  I showed the Old Flame branding to many female colleagues and friends – some thought it crossed a line and some didn’t – not that I needed to qualify this statement.  Secondly, this isn’t about offending females; it is about progress.  If it is only females that are concerned about sexism we are further behind in our thinking than we like to portray.  This is where I think it becomes very important that these topics are discussed in the most open way possible.  The point can’t be to ‘call out’ those brands who you feel are being sexist; the point has to be to engage them in a conversation about their branding choices.  I don’t want a brewery to change their branding because it offends someone – I want them to change it because they genuinely believe that it needs to be changed, and that this new thinking becomes a part of their ethos as a business.  That is progress through unlearning.

Which brings me back to the Old Flame branding…I don’t think their actions were sexist when they decided to go with these labels but their intentions don’t necessarily matter.  How these labels will be perceived and whether they will perpetuate a sexist culture that makes it okay to objectify and de-value women matters.  Although the intent might not be there (and I truly believe that it wasn’t), I think we should all take responsibility for what we contribute because it is important – knowledge is constructed by us about us.  The other reason I brought Old Flame into this discussion is, as noted earlier, their branding is not absurdly over the top – so hopefully the conversation won’t become too heated and we can have a worthwhile dialogue about this.  I really do want this to be a conversation because I am still working through my reactions, and I realize the issue might not a simple one to tackle,  and I am curious to hear what others including Old Flame think.

You can follow Dennis on Twitter and Instagram or send him an email at theipamyth@gmail.com

Cover Photo by Sean Atkinson

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7 comments

Matt says:

I feel the same way about old flame. It lightly olays upon sexism. I wont buy from them or visit their brewery again

Gabe says:

Let us get this out of the way right now Old Flame makes really good beer for a fairly new brewery doing classic German style beers. There are far worse breweries that should be boycotted because of their use of sexuality in marketing. An “Old Flame” is a former lover, more than likely someone you were quite fond of. To me it plays as they want this beer to be the consumer’s old flame. A beer that when you’re not drinking it you miss it and wish you had one within your grasp. Is the imagery feminine in nature? For sure, I’ll give you that, but sexist to a point of crossing the line? I don’t believe so.

When it comes to marketing, there are dozens of craft breweries in Ontario alone. Many make similar styles that have similar taste, so marketing is their way to stand out. In the LCBO how many Ontario IPA’s are there? Ten, fifteen, twenty? They need to make their can pop. Without the freedom to advertise as they see fit, within the realm of appropriateness, ever brewery is going to be called “Something City”. Every brand will be named after a local attraction or have an awful pun in it like “Reach for the hop”. Old Flame’s marketing seems like an entertaining way of naming their beers after the beers colour. I think their approach can bring some brand recognition without crossing any boundaries. They are marking towards their target demographic. Young to middle aged men still make up the majority of beer consumers, like it or not, and Old Flames brand does seem to target that group. I do not think, however, that their branding isolates half of the populous.

This article reads as if there is a mountain being made of a mole hill, and maybe the real issue is what makes products sell within our western culture? Picking on a small town Ontario craft brewery isn’t the way to make change. Just because the article states that it isn’t and attack on Old Flame brewery does not mean that it doesn’t read that way. The First comment says “I won’t buy from them or visit their brewery again.” Clearly someone bought into attack and the overall theme of the article. There are so many better examples of sexism in the brewing world. Old Milwaukee has pin up girls on their logos, far more offensive than Old Flame. Name a Bud Light commercial without a woman who is attractive and wearing skimpy clothing. These are where the real examples of sexism within the industry can be found. Not on cans named after generic terms for hair colours. This article seems to be telling women that they should be offended by their labeling. This has become a more common occurrence within the socially liberal world. People keep looking for reasons to be offended and need constant politically correctness in their daily lives or else the fragile bubble they live in will implode. If a line was crossed here the bigger issue should be; when did this line moved so close to us and why is almost everything we are exposed to offensive?

Having said that, I completely agree that the beer industry overall is extremely sexist, as are every other industry that market predominantly to men. Sex sells, this isn’t news to anyone. Men respond to sexuality in marking, so I suppose that our culture and human nature is to blame for that. Let’s not use a brewery in a town of 22,500 people as talking point for sexuality in marketing. Old Flame has done nothing wrong here. They are just another small brewery in the ever expanding craft brewery industry trying to stand out in a huge market.

Dennis Talon says:

Hi Gabe,

Thanks for reading and commenting.

I’m not asking anyone to boycott Old Flame and I’m certainly not attacking Old Flame. I understand the article doesn’t benefit from the voice I hear in my head as I write it though (calm and conversational – I tried to make that as clear as possible). But, I am reacting to their branding and exploring whether other people reacted the same way. Old Flame decided to go with branding that had the potential to be provocative; I don’t see why being from a small Ontario town or making good beer means I should ignore the questions I had when I saw their branding.

You’re right, I could have used other examples but there was something specific about Old Flame’s branding that caught my attention. To your point, I think the play on the Old Flame (and the emotional hook that comes with that) is engaging, smart, and original. Also, I agree that it’s hard to stand out in a ‘sea of sameness’ – but many breweries do just fine using different types of approaches. This specific approach caught my attention though because it is a clear example of objectification while not being over-the-top ridiculous (a good place to start the conversation). But for me, it is almost more problematic because it is subtle. To be clear, if I saw only one of the cans, I’m not sure I would have had the same reaction – but they essentially created a brand catalogue organized by female attributes – and I witnessed the conversations this approach generated. I suppose it comes down to whether you feel these types of conversations are harmless or not – obviously I find them problematic (because of how I believe knowledge is constructed and learned). Where you see a mole hill, perhaps I see the potential for something a bit bigger.

I agree with you 100% – this is a part of a larger societal problem – but I write about beer so this is one way of chipping away at it. Obviously the more important way to tackle this is how I act every day, how I treat my partner, and what I teach my son.

Again – thanks for reading and commenting; I appreciate it.

-dennis

Daniel says:

To be specific to the brand in question, the notion that an entirely vague silhouette of a woman and the literal colour of hair on a product equates to objectification and an innate desire of men to ‘own’ the ‘commodity’ of women is verging on ridiculous.

Are there sexist beer marketing ploys? Undeniable. Is this limited to beer/alcohol marketing? Of course not. Is sexually-oriented marketing limited to one sex? How many of the same people offended by this branding walk past, say, an American Eagle store, look at a 20 ft.-tall, high-res poster of a topless male model sporting an unrealistic body-type – and don’t give it another thought? If you’re going to be offended by one form of sexual objectification, are you really going to pick and choose the instances? If you (speaking of offended peoples) want to tear down a brand for being harmful to women; how they are viewed and utilized for marketing, what do you think of the Skinny Girl cocktail brand?

If you want to push it further: If you’re going to get up-in-arms about sexual rights, are you going to use the same zeal to fight for human rights? Do you only buy clothing and other mass-produced items from certified companies that don’t abuse micro-wage 3rd world production facilities? Or do you maybe hold your nose and buy that giant bag of tube socks from Walmart…
(Note to self; create brand of hand-made certified organic tube socks, there appears to be a market developing.)

The world we live in, people are offended by everything. That’s how it is. You can’t tell people they’re not offended if they are, but you also can’t tell a private company that they can’t market how they so choose (of course abiding by legal standards).

Hate to simplify so much, but if you don’t like it, don’t buy it. They have a right to market this way, you have a right to be offended. Speak with your wallet, and their accounting department will adapt as necessary.

Women are sexualized for profit. Men are sexualized for profit. Women AND men are abused and taken advantage of world-wide in equally – if not more – dangerous ways, socially and LITERALLY. Breaking this down or constraining this as a Women vs. Evil Beer Patriarchy fight is, well, shallow.

Dennis Talon says:

Hi Daniel,

Thanks for reading and for your comments.

A lot of what I wrote was positioned in the form of a question – because as I state, I was working through my reactions. One area that wasn’t a question was the topic of objectification. Those cans are pretty much a clear definition of objectification – they just are (whether you think that’s right or wrong is a different question). This mechanism/approach is fairly common in advertising and branding – esp. when targeted at men. Also, I never said or implied that it was an ‘innate male desire’ to own women (in fact a lot of my thinking is based on the exact opposite – i.e. social constructionism) – but it is a mechanism of advertising/branding that is common place in our culture.

To your second and third points – am I simply to accept that if I can’t change everything I shouldn’t bother trying to change anything? I’ve seen this a few times now from people who have disagreed with my piece and I’m not sure I get it – are you saying that if someone wants to approach this subject, they have to write a complete manifesto on objectification in all its forms and instances? Why is that?

Regarding not being able to tell a company how to market – I agree with you 100%. They are free to present themselves as they see fit. And I also agree that I could vote with my wallet – but I question how effective consumer advocacy really is sometimes. I think sometimes a discussion is better for the reasons I wrote about (more constructive).

To your last point, I’m not sure I get how it’s shallow? I accept if you disagree with me with this specific example – but how is it shallow to write about an issue within the context of an industry that I obviously have a lot of interest in? How is it shallow to write about this in the context of an industry that, because of its size and nature, is still pretty accessible – and therefore maybe I can actually impact some change? This is similar to how I replied to Gabe above – it’s about chipping away at things.

Again – thanks for reading and for taking the time to comment,
-dennis

Dennis,
Thanks very much for writing this. I don’t know if you listen to the podcast I produce with Mandie Murphy from Left Field, but our last episode was on sexism in the industry. We are recording the next episode in 30 minutes, and I’m going to touch on this is follow up. I am just so happy I came across it in time.
For myself, I agree with you totally (and this is coming from a guy who made a clickbait listicle on the sexiest beer labels in Canada less than 2 years ago). The lines between the celebration of beauty or femininity and objectification are murky, and need to be examined. And open conversation is one of the best ways to do that. Most of the big steps I’ve made haven’t come through quiet introspection, but rather through good dialogue, or sharp rebuke 😉
Thanks again,
C

Chris says:

Honestly… I get there beer once a month. I have never, never thought of anything discussed in this article. I also think there is a lot worse in the world to worry about then the tame labels of there products. Life is too short, and this is making something out of nothing. Drink it or don’t. Simple.

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