Beer brands, marketing & the regulator: has the ASA got it wrong with BrewDog?

BrewDog is no stranger to controversy. The Scottish brewer’s brand is built on a rebellious, anti-authority streak. They’ve often gone out of their way to infuriate the industry’s own self-regulatory body, the Portman Group over the iconic packaging, high strength beers and the limited edition packaged in stuffed animals.

The result is a legion of adoring fans some of whom are now shareholders in the business. It’s an attitude that’s also refreshingly different and despite it’s brushes with regulators, has probably helped grow consumer interest in the craft beer segment.

Last week saw the latest skirmish when it fell foul of the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) over copy on the brand’s home page.

The ASA’s ruling upheld the (single) complaint that the content was in breach of Rule 4.1 of the Advertising Code.  This stipulates that:

Marketing communications must not contain anything that is likely to cause serious or widespread offence. Particular care must be taken to avoid causing offence on the grounds of race, religion, gender, sexual orientation, disability or age. Compliance will be judged on the context, medium, audience, product and prevailing standards. The rule also notes that:

“Marketing communications may be distasteful without necessarily breaching this rule.”

So was this a genuine breach or have the ASA overreached? The offending copy introduced visitors to the brand with the following:

“BrewDog is a post Punk apocalyptic mother fu*ker of a craft brewery.  Say goodbye to the corporate beer whores crazy for power and world domination … Ride toward anarchy and caramel craziness.  Let the sharp bitter finish rip you straight to the tits. Save up for a Luger, and drill the bastards”.

Whilst it’s certainly cheeky it doesn’t offend on the grounds of race, religion, gender or the other elements outlined in the code. It’s also not a piece of PAID media so it hasn’t just appeared on a website or in a magazine. It’s on the brand’s own website and therefore likely to have only been seen by the faithful or those with an interest in the brand who have sought out the site.

Does this matter? Yes. Putting websites under the ASA’s remit is fine for certain sectors – sites selling medicine, health foods, food and drink, insurance, etc need to be regulated to ensure consumers aren’t misled.

Yet a brand site doesn’t seem to offer quite the same threat to drinkers. The language isn’t polite but then that’s the point. It isn’t serious. It’s the brand’s call to action against what it rightly sees as bland, mass-produced rubbish sold in huge quantities at the supermarkets. Is upholding one complaint valid in this context?

The real issue is what action the ASA can actually take. With paid media, media owners can avoid running controversial ads. Advertisers may also have to run ads by CAP’s Copy Advice Team.

Yet with a website what can the ASA do? It can’t ban the website or take it down. And if it’s hosted outside there is little recourse via the courts. This is a recurring theme with attempts to censor web content that those seeking action often don’t understand the implications of the actions or their inability to enforce them.  Or as BrewDog’s CEO so memorably put it – ‘’Those mother f*****s have no jurisdiction over us”. He has a point…

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Categories: Beer and ale, Marketing, Responsible Drinking

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