Thursday 28 January 2010

Group Think, Port of Man

I'm sure most of my readers will be aware of a little cultural tour of Sheffield at the weekend. Several bloggers had the idea of meeting up for a few drinks and to visit a few nice pubs and bars around the area. The idea formed organically on Twitter and before long the number of Twissheads grew to 30. There is little point in me writing a detailed account of the proceedings as no doubt others will, Mark Dredge for one has written his account already, but suffice to say much great beer was drunk and many great pubs visited. Sheffield is indeed a great city for beer.

I learnt a few things during this session of drunken debauchery. First is that late at night in Sheffield it is nearly impossible to find decent food. At 1am the takeaway food was frankly terrible. I threw half of my kebab away and that is not like me.

Still, it was warming to be taken to one side on several occasions during the day and told how much people like reading this blog and could I please post a little more often? OK, I have been busy, did I not tell everyone that I have a secret project on the go....

Well, here I am, writing again. As it so happens, whilst enjoying my Hillsborough Hotel breakfast the next day I remembered an interesting debate I had with Kristy McCready regarding the Portman group. Despite the intensity of the discussion we really were a long way off a punch up, honest. If you follow this blog you would probably already know that I'm not really a big fan of the organisation. I'm one of the few that actually found the BrewDog stunts amusing and got their point. Kristy has the view that its better to have The Portman Group than have government legislation, which would be a blunt instrument used to prevent all sorts of advertising of alcohol.

Kristy works for that nasty big beer making company Moulston-Coors, lucky girl, bet she gets a regular pay cheque and paid holidays, there are days I could forgo my principles in exchange for employees rights. No, wait, what am I saying? get thee behind me.....Although, there is the White Shield brewery......

On Sunday morning I felt I understood, after Kristy had gently put across her point of view the night before, that I could see both sides of the Portman issue. I would like here to develop a balanced appraisal based on our discussion.

Firstly, we have to accept that mass produced and marketed products are a feature of our modern society, culture and economy. Yes, that goes against my opinion of multi-national conglomerates, but it is true. Mass markets require mass advertising through mass media; it's simple really. It might be baked beans, cars, bread, oven chips or beer, it doesn't matter, if we live in a thriving developed world we will have mass markets.

Beer, along with all other alcoholic beverages, causes intoxication which can lead to health problems and antisocial behaviour. Responsible consumption is a good idea and keeping any detrimental effects of its consumption on society at an acceptable level is no bad thing. Irresponsible advertising and promotion of alcoholic beverages probably does cause some problems. Linking the possibility of getting laid to drinking a certain beverage, for instance, I would have to consider a problem. Anything that suggests that antisocial behaviour whilst drunk is glamorous could also be considered a problem.

What the Portman group sets out to do is prevent such dubious promotion of alcoholic beverages. We have to also remember that their remit covers the whole spectrum of drinks, not just beer. It includes, what I believe to be, the biggest single change to our drinking culture that has been created by new product innovation; Ready To Drink products - Alcopops. It also covers spirits such as rum, vodka and gin. Accusations of bias from me for the following statement would be justified but; these are drinks that really do fuel some of our alcohol related problems.

The Portman group take a rational view of advertising and work with the companies to create marketing campaigns that are responsible. Asking questions like "would I be happy if my child saw that?" for instance. Actually, if I were honest I'd have to agree with that and even I would say that the marketing of drinks has become a little more respectable recently. Is this better than government legislation? OK, go on then, I'll agree with that, the Portman group can stay.

I would like to see them change a little bit, please?

Of course I'm not completely convinced with all their decisions. The Tokyo* issue being the most important example but Skullsplitter also raised inappropriate attention. I've been selling Tokyo* now for a few months, not in any great volume and always drunk in a responsible way. The banning of the current label seems a shame to me. I'd like to explain exactly why. First, the reader needs to know the exact wording of the offending bit.

"It is all about moderation. Everything in moderation, including moderation itself. What logically follows is that you must, from time, have excess. This beer is for those times."

At first glance you could see why a neo-prohibitionist might get upset at that. It is actually suggesting that excess is a good thing. I believe that is the basis of the Portman group's decision and on face value could be perfectly reasonable.

Things have to be taken in context. This little bit of text is a joke. Very simply it is taking the piss out of the neo-prohibitionists and the Portman group at the same time. If the text was aimed at 18 year old revellers in the city centre bars and clubs I could agree, but it's not, it's aimed at making people like me chuckle. Every single person who actually gets to read it in my pub are responsible people, they read the text and get the irony and then proceed to sip the beverage with, I think the word is, nonchalance.

Moreover, the text is at the end of a boring bit of writing that drivels on about computer games and French Oak chips. Most antisocial behaviour orientated ruffians would have got lost after the first sentence and gone away to terrorise some innocent bystander. If the product was a mass produced RTD and the writing was in big letters on the side of the bottle then I'd have to agree with the Portman Group, but that is not how it is.

It is possible that BrewDog got everything they wanted out of the publicity surrounding the banning of the words. Their righteous indignation might be covering up glee at the increased publicity. Was that publicity bad? I doubt it. Perhaps BrewDog got everything it deserved after all, the product has not been band, just the label. Also, the group has no weight in law. If as a retailer I choose to ignore the legally unenforceable ban then I am not going to get prosecuted for it. The worse that will happen is that should anybody become dangerously drunk in my place and there is any sort of investigation, then I could lose my licence due to it providing evidence that I am an irresponsible retailer. I run a respectable establishment and lewd activity involving Tokyo* would never be permitted, so I should be safe.

The point for me is that there is a significant difference between this beer and any product that is designed for the mass market. Only 1000 bottles of the 2009 batch was available for consumption in this country, hardly a big threat to alcohol fueled crime or health issues. Couple this with the nature of the target audience, for me, makes the Portman's group decision dubious.

In conclusion, I agree with the need for the Portman group as a useful industry regulator. Finding a way of ensuring we minimise promotions of drinks that risk increases of any alcohol problems has to be a good thing. If we are to keep the neo-prohibitionists at bay we must work as an industry to combat that. Equally, we should look at how the irrelevant tiff between Mr Portman and BrewDog can be subdued. That might have to involve some talking and I wonder if anybody is prepared to do that? I am, but are James Watt and David Poley?

I would like the Portman group to look at the output from specialist breweries with a little bit more of a relaxed approach. Where there is a huge dose sarcasm and cynicism in the advertising and where the target market is clearly not volume then I would like the Portman group to take this into consideration. I think it would be unreasonable for them to expect every microbrewery to communicate, but I'd like to see some representation from this segment of the market engage in dialogue. Perhaps this way we can avoid the potentially messy press that Tokyo* caused.


BeerReviewsAndy said...

Intresting stuff as always Dave, That street with the "kebab" shop on was packed full of late night revellers...some in a much worse for wear state than others, i wonder how many of them had supped the likes of Tokyo* and Skullsplitter and how many drank some of the promotions that only city centre pubs do, like Jager bombs and cheap measures.

mentaldental said...

"Everything in moderation, including moderation itself." As you say, a joke. And a paraphrase of Oscar Wilde. Almost erudite. Those Brewdog's eh?

Barry M said...

While I agree that the text on the Tokyo* label should be taken in context (I like the tongue-in-cheek stuff on BrewDog labels!), and really the reaction was excessive, you fail to mention that it was BrewDog who complained about their own text. If they hadn't, would there have been any kerfuffle about it?

Sure, the text itself takes the piss, but then that group were goaded into action by a complaint; that's what they do I suppose. I still think it was silly to complain about their own beer, so when you say "righteous indignation", I'd say it was the reaction they wanted.

Is the blog post they made admitting to writing the complaint still missing from their site?

Alistair Reece said...

Just a point of order question I suppose, but is there any chance we can move on from the whole BrewDog vs Portman Group side show and get back to the beer?

Tandleman said...

VA - Seconded - not that the piece isn't good btw.

Unknown said...

Andy, even in my state I found that street a little oppressive. But did you notice all the legs? It's a good job Ann was there to keep me under-control..... scantily clad women should be banned, gives dirty old men like me all the wrong ideas....

Mental, Oscar Wilde eh? I didn't know that.

Barry, indeed, that is a good point. I do wonder if the issue would have occurred at all if BrewDog had kept quiet.

Al and Tandleman, OK, I'll try......[goes into the corner and sulks]

Alistair Reece said...


Didn't mean any disrespect to the article, it was excellent as ever.

Unknown said...

Al, don't worry, I took it all in the spirit that it was meant. Anyway, I've stop sulking already......

BeerReviewsAndy said...

Cant say i saw any legs Dave ;o)

Kristy said...

I feel very proud to be a muse for this post - and even prouder I was still capable of what sounds like intelligent conversation at that time in the proceedings!!

There's two points for me - one the role of Portman and two how Brewdog behave (sorry Al and Tandleman!!).

Brewdog have clearly adopted a strategy of courting publicity via controversy which to me is unsustainable in the long term as a marketing tool, which I think they've learnt to their cost in the reaction to their own Tokyo* stunt. The fact is you poke a dog with a stick enough times and it's gonna bite and continually baiting Portman is doing them no favours - they should concentrate on brewing beer.

Portman might not be perfect but their guidelines are very clear and they are happy to advise upfront so there is no excuse for being in breach of their regulations if you are interested in promoting alcohol responsibly. Interesting that the wording on Tokyo* is seen as tongue-in-cheek - would we feel the same if it was on a bottle of Smirnoff Ice? No and we shouldn't feel different about Brewdog, there are lots of ways you can market alcohol in a fun, irreverent way and still be compliant. They may be small today and there may be publicans like Dave selling it responsibly but when I ran a bar I was one of the first to take Smirnoff Ice as part of it's trial launch, when it was still tiny and when we sold it for a huge premium so would that make it ok to have had irresponsible wording then - at what point would you have to change??

If we can't work with Portman and be responsible as a drinks industry the alternative is imposed regulation which, as the HSE has laid out, would include regulations around social media and social network sites which could well see the end of blogs like this , suddenly Portman might not be so bad afterall

Unknown said...

Thanks Kristy, you've filled in the bits of what you said and I had forgotten. You said all that on Saturday and it must have had an impact but I just couldn't remember the actual words.

If I remember rightly you behaved responsibly and remained coherent all night, really.

Kristy said...

I always do ;o)

Tandleman said...

Excellent points from Kristy which are hard to disagree with.

Rob Sterowski said...

I couldn't disagree more. Crappy products remain crappy products whether they are marketed "responsibly" or not. The Portman Group exists to whitewash crappy products. If you have a product which is so bland and uninteresting that its only use is to get you drunk, is it responsible to market it at all?

Tandleman said...

Well of course if you take the view - as I do really - that the Portman Group are largely there to defend big brewers, Barm is right, but Kristy has the right logic in her argument about Brew Dog and probably better them (Portman) than the dead hand of an anti booze government.

Of course the point is moot because big brewers wouldn't do what Brew Dog did. The argument becomes a little circular at this point, but boils down to legislation or an industry lead self policing.

Take your pick.

Alistair Reece said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Alistair Reece said...


As Tandleman says, excellent points which are hard to disagree with.

I have said before on Fuggled that as long as BrewDog continue to make good beer then I am happy to buy their products and indulge (I would be happier if more of their range got to this part of Virginia mind).

Still, I wonder how many people have got to the point of seeing BrewDog in the media and thinking "oh god, what have they done this time?" rather than being excited about a beer they are producing?