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WRITER, CONSULTANT AND BROADCASTER SPECIALISING IN BEER, PUBS AND CIDER. BEER WRITER OF THE YEAR 2009 AND 2012

What's new?

What's new?
We've just launched the first ever Beer Marketing Awards - click here for more details!
I'm doing beer and music matching at the wonderful Wenlock Arms next week! Click to find out more
Just added links to my stuff in All About Beer, prompted by my latest piece on Tuscan beer and food.
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Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Some reflections on PubCo reform

This most difficult and complex issue in the pub industry probably hasn't got any easier after a landmark victory in parliament yesterday for anti-PubCo campaigners. But whatever your views, no one except the campaigners has come out of this looking good.

I've not written much about the long-running battle between the biggest pub companies in Britain (pubcos) and the publicans who feel ripped off and/or abused by them. I've taken no joy whatsoever in writing about it when I have. It's the most emotive, bitter and unpleasant issue I've come across in my time as a beer writer, and beer writing is meant to be a joy.


THE BACKGROUND
If you don't know the history of this dispute, here it is in brief (if you do, skip to the next bit). For most of the twentieth century, pubs were owned by the breweries that supplied them with beer. Breweries paid for things such as upkeep and decoration in return for the pub not selling anyone else's beer but theirs. (There's more in my book Man Walks into a Pub on how this came about). In 1989, the government decided this was anti-competitive, and passed the Beer Orders, which severely limited the number of pubs any one brewery was allowed to own. Thousand of pubs instantly hit the market, and were bought up by investment banks, repackaged, split up, parcelled out, and eventually came under the ownership of a few big pub companies accounting for about half of Britain's pubs.

These pubcos were not tied to any one brewery, but many felt that the situation was even less openly competitive than it had been before: pubcos could drive hard deals with the brewers that supplied them, and the range of beers in a typical boozer actually shrank. Instead of Whitbread beers in Whitbread pubs, Courage beers in Courage pubs and so on, the same big national brands were installed wherever you went. And crucially, from a publican's perspective, the pubs were still tied - not to a brewery, but to a property-owning company which had astonishing debts after buying thousands of pubs just at the time Britain's leisure habits changed and we started doing most of our drinking at home.

The tied deal offered by a pubco looks good on paper and, to be fair, does seem to work for a lot of publicans. The pubco makes its money via a combination of property rent and the purchasing tie. In theory, someone with not much capital to invest and not much experience in the trade can go into a pub on a low rent, but the company makes the money back by selling stock to the pub at inflated prices, above the market rate the publican could buy the same stuff for elsewhere. But the publican still makes money, because the pubco is a business partner offering help and advice, takes care of the repairs and so on, and the combination of rent and tied stock prices works out OK over the year.

That's the theory. And it is important to repeat that this model works perfectly well for thousands of happy publicans. But it is also undeniable that this system has been abused by the pubcos, if not on a systematic basis, then certainly at a widespread enough level for it to be seen as a pattern rather than an aberration. I've spoken to many publicans who feel they were misled when signing their leases, given false information about how profitable the pub was before signing up to how much money they would pay over, being made liable for essential and costly repairs they weren't told about, or punished for succeeding by being given eye-wateringly high increases when rent review time came around.

While many campaigners will vehemently disagree with me on this point, it's my belief that the worst excesses of the pubco abuse are in the past: they have cleaned up their act, because they had to - they simply couldn't carry on getting away with it. That's not to say problems and disputes have gone away - far from it - but the pubcos are not taking the piss like they once did.


THE CRUCIAL VOTE
Anyway, there's a Bill going through parliament that sets up a statutory code to regulate the dealings between pubcos and their tenants and lessees. Naturally, the pubcos oppose this, and have lobbied for it to be as light on them as possible. But the campaigners, facilitated by self-styled pub champion Greg Mulholland MP, requested an amendment to the bill that would make it mandatory for pubcos to offer a 'market rent only' option, effectively allowing any tenant to rent a pub from them free of tie. Yesterday, MPS voted to include that amendment in the Bill, after many were swayed to vote against party lines by a campaign from pubco opponents. (Apart from its importance to the pub industry, the vote was significant for being the first government defeat in a whipped vote since the coalition came to power in 2010).

Of course the Bill still needs to be passed into law with the amendment intact, but the rush of reaction from both sides after yesterday's vote makes it seem like everyone expects it to survive.

I don't have a coherent point of view on this, and for a more knowledgeable insight on what this might actually mean for the future of the pub market you should read an insightful blog by a level-headed, balanced publican - but even he can't say what will happen for sure. But I do have some disconnected observations...

1. This is a remarkable victory for the campaigners 
Whether you agree with them or not, this is a grassroots campaign that has convinced politicians, upset the government and triumphed over some powerful lobbying groups. I've criticised the campaigners in the past for being too emotional, too aggressive, and alienating those who could be supportive. All that evaporates in the face of a coherent, well-organised campaign with just the right amount of emotive force.

2. If they really were being fair, I don't understand why the pubcos are so upset
This is entirely due to my naivety about the mechanics of the deal, and I have no desire to be educated on it in more detail than I already know. Sometimes naivety can be a good thing. If pubcos make their money via sliding levers, moving rent up and tied stock prices down and vice versa to get to the deal that works best for both parties, then surely they will be no worse off? If someone wants a market rent only tenancy, I'm sure that market rent will be much higher than what they currently pay. If they don't like it, they can stick with a tied deal. If the tied deal is as fair as the pubcos say it is, surely most pubco tenants will stick with it, and the pubco won't make any less money from a market rent only deal? As Stonch points out, they already do offer market rent-only deals to some operators - at very high market rents. What does this vote change apart from offering that option to more people?

3. CAMRA's response is a little disappointing
Within an hour of the vote, I received a press release from CAMRA claiming all the credit for the vote. The statement begins "CAMRA is delighted that, after ten years of our campaigning, MPs have today voted to introduce a market rent only option for licensees tied to the large pub companies - a move that will secure the future of the Great British Pub" and ends "Thank you to the 8000 CAMRA members and campaigners who lobbied their local MP to help make this happen and to those MPs that voted to support pubs. CAMRA are now urging the Government to accept the outcome of the vote." I'm not saying CAMRA didn't help in this campaign - they played a significant role - but to imply this was their campaign, and theirs alone, doesn't make them look good. As a CAMRA member, I can't recall receiving any communication for the organisation urging me to support the campaign. (I'm not saying they didn't send me anything, just that if they did, it wasn't noticeable.) In the week running up to yesterday's vote the activity from grassroots groups such as Fair Deal For Your Local was unmissable across social media. @camraofficial, by comparison, issued one tweet on November 12 urging its members to lobby their MPs to support the amendment. Of course CAMRA played a key role, but it was one of many groups, and I find it disingenuous that they were so quick to claim all the credit.

4. The BBPA's response is even more disappointing
The BBPA describes itself as "the leading body representing Britain’s brewers and pub companies". Most of the time, this means it is the official voice speaking on behalf of the whole beer and pub industry, and when it does so, it does an increasingly effective job. Unlike many pubco campaigners I don't see the BBPA as The Enemy. I have worked with them in the past and hope to do so again. I even count several people who work there as friends. But yesterday's press release in response to the vote was unbecoming of them.

Chief Executive Brigid Simmons is quoted as saying the vote will "hugely damage investment, jobs, and results in 1,400 more pubs closing, with 7,000 job losses - as the Government’s own research shows." But this is not quite true. The government research to which Simmons refers actually says the move could result in between 700 and 1,400 pubs closing, with between 3,700 and 7,000 job losses. Now I'm not saying that's a good thing, and I have no idea whether this research is right or not - we'll have to wait and see. But by only quoting the uppermost figure as if it were the only figure, and not the to limit in a very wide range, at best the organisation responsible for promoting beer and pubs is being overly gloomy and pessimistic about their future. At worst, the BBPA is being deliberately misleading and alarming on an issue that hasn't gone their way. This is the kind of nonsense I expect from Alcohol Concern, not the beer and pub industry.

Simmons also says, "This change effectively breaks the ‘beer tie’, which has served Britain’s unique pub industry well for nearly 400 years." As someone who has written a history of beer and pubs in Britain, this came as a great surprise to me. If the beer tie has been around for nearly 400 years, that means its been around for longer than the big breweries that invented it: large scale commercial brewing only really became the dominant model of British beer in the mid-eighteenth century, after the industrial revolution. While tied pubs may have existed in the seventeenth or eighteenth centuries, they didn't become the norm until the late nineteenth century, when beer consumption peaked and brewers floated on the stock exchange to buy up the pubs that sold their beer. The tied house system was only the norm for a century or so, and even then, 'serving the pub industry well' surely has to be questioned as a statement. It's always been problematic, always been fought against, never perfect.

Finally, again, is this really the end of the tie as Simmons claims? Does the freedom to opt out of a tied relationship with a pubco mean the end of the tied relationship as a model? Surely this is only the case if that tied relationship is so intrinsically flawed that all, or even the majority, of publicans will exercise their new right to opt out of it? 

The pubcos and their lobbyists can't have it both ways: if the tie works for the majority of publicans, and is as fair as we have always been told it is, then the majority of publicans will stick with it. If this does really spell the end of the tie, then that means the pubcos and their supporters have been lying to us all along, and it really was institutionally unfair on publicans.

I have no idea what the right answer is. But the pubco stance on this issue simply doesn't add up. Or am I missing something obvious?

I really do hope yesterday's vote will lead to a fairer, more equitable deal for publicans, and will not result in the closures and job losses being gloomily forecast by those who have lost. Because this conflict brings out the worst in our industry, and because I would be really happy not to ever feel obliged to write about it again.

UPDATE
I just found the London Economics report on which the scary pub closure figures are based. I've only got time for a quick scan as I really do have other work to be getting on with. But it seems to me that the reason they are forecasting MOR would lead to pub closures is that Britain is currently oversupplied with pubs - essentially, it's saying pubcos are currently managing to keep pubs open that would otherwise close in a freer market, pubs where under the current system neither pubco nor publican are making enough money. It doesn't seem to be saying at all that a given MOR pub would be worse off than it is now because it is MOR.

They may be right or wrong about this - pubco campaigners believe they are definitely wrong, I believe there is some truth to the idea that struggling and poor pubs will fold if they're subject to free market pressures. But I can also point to countless examples of failing or underperforming pubs that have been shed by Enterprise or Punch that are now thriving under new ownership.

The study is modelling the number of pubco pubs that will close. It's undeniable that MOR would accelerate the rate of disposal of under-performing pubs from pubcos. But what the pubcos and BBPA fail to point out is that London Economics "estimate a third of these would re-open under alternative management." So that makes the 1400 pubs and 7000 jobs claim dishonest on two counts: as well as this being only the highest figure within a wide range, these are not net closures in the pub market as is currently being implied; rather they are modelled net loss closures to the pubco estates - not to the economy as a whole.

The London Economics report speculates that MOR may lead to the end of a large scale tied pub system - not that it definitely will. And even if it does, it suggests that "This, however, may not be as disastrous as it initially sounds." (Quotes from Executive Summary of the report, page vii).

So, the 'government's own research' that is being wheeled out in today's papers to signal the death knell for the British pub isn't quite saying what the BBPA and pubcos would like you to think it is saying.

Again, if I'm getting the wrong end of the stick here I welcome clarification and correction from anyone more familiar with the issue than I am.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Please vote for me in the UK Blog Awards



Look, I don't like to ask, really I don't. It's demeaning. But if I didn't ask, you wouldn't know about it, so I have to.

There's a thing called the UK Blog Awards. I decided to enter it this year for the first time. I've been blogging about beer and pubs, and more lately cider, since 2006, which makes me the second or third oldest beer blog in the UK. Over that time I've completed the transition from freelance adman and part-time writer to full-time writer. I now write for a variety of publications, but this blog remains the place for me to air thoughts and musings that don't quite fit anywhere else.

Last year I expanded it to give more details of events etc, and links to the other writing I do - there are pages of links to all my Publican's Morning Advertiser and London Loves Business columns, for example.

I'm enormously proud of this blog and what it's achieved, so when I saw these awards I thought 'why not'? Beer blogging is a brilliant and often overlooked corner of the blogosphere and by entering these awards I hope I'll bring a bit of attention to it.

The first round of judging is a pubic vote which is open from now until 3rd December. All you have to do to vote is follow this link and leave your name and email address - it'll take less than a minute.

I'm not going to do a hard sell because that would be demeaning to us both. But if you have ever enjoyed reading this blog over the last eight years, please gimme a click.

Cheers.

Monday, 17 November 2014

The Beer Marketing Awards - Launch and call for entries

I'm very proud to announce (after a false start a couple of years ago, the launch of the Beer Marketing Awards.

There are plenty of awards schemes - and rightly so - that celebrate excellence in brewing. But few great beers sell themselves. We're not just talking about glossy TV campaigns for lager brands, influential though they are - label design, social media presence, stunts, events and merchandising are all important in making sure beer gets noticed and bought by the people who want it.

The awards are open to all brewers with a presence and focus in the UK - and their agencies. The awards will recognise excellence in the following categories:

• Best advertising campaign – print
• Best advertising campaign – broadcast
• Best use of social media
• Best branding / design
• Best public relations campaign
• Best use of competitions
• Best integrated campaign
• Best stunt / guerrilla marketing
• Best B2B campaign
• Best website
• Best use of sponsorship
• Best use of merchandise

From these, an overall winner will be announced as well as an award for ‘Outstanding Individual achievement’, which will highlight the individual who, in the minds of the judges, has had the most impact in the way beer is marketed in the UK. 

The judges, led by me, will include leading on- and off-trade operators, beer journalists, bloggers and award-winning marketeers.

The reason I think this is such a powerful idea is that there is currently no awards scheme that is relevant to every single brewer in the industry, nothing that brings them all together. The idea of this competition is that it celebrates ALL beer. Irrespective of the size of your budget, there's a category that's relevant to you - there are obviously some categories here that are out of reach of small micros. But there are others where micros are currently succeeding much better than the big boys. The overall competition is about celebrating creativity at all levels, and any category winner, large or small, could walk away with the top prize. 

There's been a great deal of debate recently about various aspects of beer marketing, from corporate campaigns to controversial use of sexist imagery and language. It seems particularly important in light of this to celebrate the very best work that brewers and their marketers do, and hopefully inspire those who are not so good to up their game.

This may sound naggingly familiar to long-time readers of this blog. That's because we first announced this idea in August 2012. Back then, in retrospect, we had neither the time nor the right people on the team to make it work properly. We postponed the event when we realised we'd double-booked it with at least one other leading industry event, and lost momentum. But the idea was too good to let go, and we have fixed those problems. The team behind these awards now has all the skills necessary to make it happen. Just to be sure, we have waited until we have confirmed the date and venue, secured some of our sponsors and most of our judges before making this announcement. 

Entries are open from now until 23rd January 2015. Details of how to enter can be found at

Winners will be announced at an event on 14th April 2015 at the Truman Brewery, Brick Lane, London. Tickets to this event are available to anyone interested in coming along. It most definitely will not be a black tie event. Sponsorship of individual categories is also available to any company wishing to have a profile at the event. Details of all of this are available via the contact form at the above website.

Finally, here are two old beer TV ads that sum up why I want to do this and why I think it's so important. The first is, for me, the perfect beer ad. The second is something I found while researching a talk this year on the history of beer advertising. 

Enjoy.

video


video

Saturday, 15 November 2014

Extreme Beer Judging

No, not the practice of judging extreme beer, but the sometimes dangerous pastime of being a beer judge, as I discovered on a trip to Tuscany back in September...

If you're going to spend Sunday morning judging a beer competition, this is where you want to do it.



We're inside an old villa atop a gentle hill just outside the Tuscan village of Buenconvento. The stone building is cooled by its high ceilings, and huge double doors are flung open onto an avenue of cypress trees leading down to freshly ploughed fields. I'm joining a mix of sommeliers, beer writers, importers and brewers to judge the Belgian-style section of a home brew competition as part of Villaggio della Birra, a beer festival now in its ninth year, which began as a celebration of imported Belgian beers and has now grown into something much bigger. Italy is steadily developing its own, original beer styles, but Belgium still seems to be the dominant influence from outside.

The standard of beers in the competition is incredible. I taste a saison that's easily the best beer I've had since arriving in Italy three days ago. And then it goes one better: a dark Trappist-style beer that would substitute quite happily for Rochefort 10, in my opinion one of the best beers in the world.

But we're asked to be harsh in our marking. We judge these beers to the same standard as if they were created by professional brewers. Out of a possible fifty marks, anything that scores less than thirty doesn't get through to the next round. Despite the excellent stand-out beers, most score somewhere in the mid-twenties. We fill out our scores on the kinds of forms used in beer judging competitions around the world, giving marks for appearance, aroma, taste and so on. We are asked to give comments that will be fed back to the brewers, and we write our names at the top of each sheet.



The judging is over by lunchtime, and we head into the bright sunshine with a slight jolt. Belgium is cloudy and rainy as a rule, and one thing its beers do not mix well with is bright, hot sunshine. I take shelter in the barn where the main beer festival is taking place, spending tokens on a mix of Belgian, Italian and American beers. After a morning of strong Belgian beer, it doesn't take long for the whole event to become woozy and floaty.

Around 4pm the judges are asked to assemble in a corner by the bar as the results of the competition are read out to the public. A combination of my being drunk and not understanding any Italian means it takes a little while before I figure out what's going on. Then, with mounting discomfort, I recognise a sheet with my handwriting on it. I watch as the chair of the judges reads out an Italian translation of my comments - and then passes the sheet to a man who is obviously the brewer of the beer.

This is not how it was meant to go. It's not that I don't stand by my comments, it's just a bit awkward where we've been critical in an unvarnished way, assuming we'll never meet the people whose babies we've just called ugly.

And now here's a seven foot-tall monster, a Death Metal fan with a gigantic ponytail hanging down his back like thick ship's hawsers, boots like Judge Dredd and a Nordic storm giant's beard, striding forward through the crowd to claim his sheet. He reads it and shakes his head, a movement that causes weather fronts to gather over the Tuscan hills. He frowns, and lightning bolts shoot from his eyes. I don't think he's happy with the scores he's been given. I don't think he agrees with them. I don't think the person who judged his beer is going to be alive for very much longer. I can't run - that would look bad. So I crane my neck around to see the piece of paper in his hand... the handwriting is not mine.

I breathe a sigh of relief. My shoulders slump. The last score sheet is handed back, and the ordeal is over.

And then there's a tap on my shoulder.

"Pete, what is this word, 'cloying'"?

This is worse than the threat of being dismembered by the giant. This is a young, slight, nervous guy in his early twenties, with big brown eyes that have gone slightly watery. He's holding a sheet with my name on it, an I've pissed on his dreams. I've given his beer 24 out of 50, and he wants to know what the word 'cloying' means, because that's how I've described his beer.

"It means sweet," I stammer, "but not in a good way... they asked us to judge to style you see. It was quite sweet for the style, that's what I meant. I liked it! But it wasn't quite to style."

He doesn't seem satisfied, but there's nothing else to say. He nods once and walks off. Ashamed of myself, I crawl away for another beer.



Disclosure: I visited Tuscany for a week courtesy of www.to-tuscany.com, who gave me a villa for the week to allow me to explore and learn about the Tuscan craft beer scene. I paid for all other expenses such as flights, care hire etc. I stayed at La Torre at Pretaccione, in the heart of Chianti, and will be writing more about the trip in various places.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Let There Be Beer? Let's start again.

This weekend sees the re-launch of the marketing campaign formerly known as Let There Be Beer. After the disappointment of the last campaign, can it redeem itself?


Disclosure and disclaimer: I have been paid for my time to act as a sounding board for the development of this campaign and to say a few words at the launch event. I have not been paid to endorse it in any way and would not risk my reputation by writing anything about it that I did not believe.

There was never any doubting the intent, or that it was a good idea on paper: a generic campaign that promotes all beer, that seeks to get people who have stopped drinking beer and stopped going to pubs, people who turn their noses up at beer and think that wine - any wine - is intrinsically better than beer - any beer - people who think that beer is just lager and lager is just for football hooligans - to think again about beer, to reappraise it, to question their bias.

It was a great idea in principle. It's just a crying shame that the first attempt at executing such a campaign, funded by a collaboration of the world's biggest brewers, was so disappointing. 


The big-budget launch ad was a let-down, and it just went sharply downhill from there. By the time the ad was banned from TV thanks to a coordinated campaign by neo-prohibitionist twats, it was almost a mercy killing.

Let There Be Beer has been carrying on in the background, and some of the low-level PR stuff has been quietly improving, selling beer on its diversity and getting promoted features in national press pushing beer as an accompaniment to various activities and events. But mostly the campaign was keeping its powder dry, having a rethink, bringing on board new executives and new agencies, chucking the money that couldn't be spent on the old ad into the pot for a new approach that wasn't going to be launched until it was right.

Along with representatives from CAMRA and the big brewers, I was invited in at various stages to see work in progress. Immediately, the difference in approach was obvious. The thinking last time had been that people who were walking away from beer just needed to be reminded how great it was, and if Big Lager was pretty much the only product featured, well, Big Lager was paying the bills.

But consumer research and industry comment both pointed out that people hadn't simply forgotten about beer. How could they when it's still being promoted so hard in the pub, at the supermarket and on the telly? 

Beer had become commoditised, boring, taken for granted. The last thing people needed was to be reminded of what they already thought. They needed their perceptions changed.

So the new campaign set out to get people to think again about beer by focusing on beer's variety, its quality and its versatility as a drink. You could write books on this - and many beer writers have - so it was decided that a simple way to launch this approach was to focus on beer's suitability with food. 

This doesn't tell the whole story because that's an impossible task for one ad campaign. But it's a great place to start - anyone who's taken part in a beer and food matching dinner knows what a powerful way this is of changing opinions. More and more alcohol is drunk with food these days. And it's classic wine territory - even when people start off drinking beer, they switch to wine when the food comes out simply because they think That's What You Do. And when beer has managed to alienate 50% of the population by being boorish and sexist in its advertising for decades, meals are a great way to make it seem more refined and suitable for everyone.

So, once again, the theory is great. How do you make sure the execution works this time? By hiring one of the best film directors in the country, and persuading him to make his first ever ad.

Michael Winterbottom (24-Hour Party People, The Trip) can shoot people brilliantly, food wonderfully, and he loves beer. Here's what he did.


It's real and naturalistic, and avoids all the cliches of the first film. It's warm. And it does that thing that's so hard to do - show modern Britain in all its brilliant diversity without seeming forced or contrived. 

Trainspotters can sit and pick up the different beer styles in each scene. We can go online and discuss a particular scene and whether the Beer For That really is a wheat beer, or maybe it's a pilsner or a pale ale, and I'm sure many of us will. You can argue they should have mentioned more beer styles by name, or should have shown more shots of pubs, or more hipsters, or fewer hipsters.

But you have to look at the broader takeout here. Most people won't take away specific beers from this campaign, whether we're talking Carling Zest or Weihenstephan weissbier. What they will hopefully take away is that beer is part of the cultural fabric of our lives, that's it's versatile and rewarding, that it can be everyday or special, craft or mainstream, ale or lager, big or small, and that however much you think you know about it, it's always got something new to offer.

The target audience for this ad is people like my wife's friends who still think I'm eccentric for being a beer writer, who smile indulgently and ask if I've ever thought of writing a 'proper' book, and who always, always choose wine - because That's What You Do. I can imagine then watching this ad, then asking hesitantly, "So... what beer DO you think I might like with my Chow Mein?"*

And the best thing is, if anyone thinks they have an idea to make it better, the framework is now there for us all to input, for people who know about beer to pool their knowledge so it can be communicated more widely. There's a massive social media element to the campaign that will be launching over the next few weeks, and Tim Lovejoy will be nowhere near it. Instead, beer writers and beer sommeliers will be providing beer match suggestions to hundreds of dishes on Twitter, and hosting live social media 'beer clubs' on classic styles. (I'm doing Belgian beers on 28th November). If you think you can do better than what's out there, the nice thing is that, this time, they'd love to hear from you and for you to get involved.

For me, this campaign puts right pretty much all of what was wrong with the last one. It's what I hoped the last one was going to be. The timing of it is perfect. I believe people are open for this kind of message right now, and think 'There's a Beer for That' will capture, solidify and amplify the current excitement around beer.

You'll always be able to pick faults in a campaign like this, that has to go through careful research validation and approval by committee. But it's a bold and extraordinary move on the part of the big global brewers to celebrate so much of beer, so far beyond the core of mainstream lager. This isn't a campaign to promote craft beer or real ale or mainstream lager; it's a campaign to promote all beer.

I like it. I hope you do too. Whatever your tastes, this is a good thing for beer.

*OK, they don't really eat Chow Mein. We live in Stoke Newington.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Sexy or sexist? This is not just CAMRA-bashing




I wasn't going to comment on this. But I started leaving a comment on someone else's blog and it started getting a bit too long so I thought I should stick it here instead.

In case you haven't heard: CAMRA, quite reasonably, would like to recruit more young people. To help do so, it produced and distributed a leaflet for use by university real ale societies. Some people who saw the leaflet were offended by it, finding it sexist. One even started a petition to have the leaflet withdrawn.

The outcry was a success. CAMRA has withdrawn the leaflet and apologised 'for any offence caused', defending its actions by revealing that sizeable numbers of young men and women were consulted on the design, and liked it. Crucially CAMRA's statement stops short of acknowledging that there was any real justification for people to be offended.

It's a classic beer industry ding-dong. Now the offending leaflet has been withdrawn and CAMRA has admitted that they 'got it wrong', some on either side think it's time to let the matter drop. But with opinions ranging from not seeing what all the fuss is about to wanting to burn CAMRA's offices to the ground, it's not going to go away easily.

It's important then that before we move on, everyone - especially CAMRA - needs to acknowledge what the problem is.

Everyone I've shown the leaflet to - mainly people outside the beer industry and with little interest in either CAMRA or CAMRA-bashing - has been appalled by it.

Whatever your views on sexism (or not) the women are highly sexualised and stylised, whereas the bloke in the top picture is just wearing an ordinary T-shirt. That gives a very clear contextual suggestion that the sexualised women are there for the ordinary ale-drinking bloke's delectation.

The front of the leaflet is sort of better in that both the man and woman are dressed in the same period costume. That would make it forgivable, were it not for the fact that in the pose, the man is physically possessive of the woman. You see, it's not just the clothes: in both sets of images, the women are portrayed as being subservient to the men.

The picture of the woman on her own shows a pose I have never seen a real woman strike when she's drinking a pint. Again, it's highly stylised, highly sexualised, and clearly has its roots in the imagery and shapes of Burlesque dancing.

Burlesque has been championed by some women as empowering, but ridiculed by others as 'middle-class stripping'. If a woman wants to dress like this, stand like that or even take her clothes off in public, she has every right to do so, but the choice is hers.

The problem here is that the women shown are presumably there to demonstrate that women drink real ale too. The reason CAMRA wants to communicate that message is that CAMRA, real ale and beer generally are still seen as being male-dominated. This broader context again reinforces the suggestion that these women are not empowered, but are here as eye candy for the lads.

There is still a great deal of sexism in the drinks industry, and real ale is no exception. I've just been working at drinks trade shows where young women were leered at and openly complemented on the merits of their tits and arses, sometimes by senior figures in the industry. Every female real ale drinker I know has at some point been subject to sexist comments for daring to drink real ale.

If these tasty birds had been in a Foster's or Carling ad, or in a lad's magazine, few would have defended their use as anything other than lairy, laddish titillation. If they'd been in an article about beer in Cosmopolitan magazine, I think they would have caused less offence, but I suspect ale-drinking women would still have seen them as condescending and patronising. Context is all.

And then there's the student context: when the LSE's rugby club has had to be banned for persistent misogyny, and Oxford and Cambridge have had to introduce compulsory sexual consent training, and the National Union of Students has published a report on the increasing prevalence of harassment,
stalking, violence and sexual assault, it's obvious that campus sexism is a real danger to female students and not just harmless 'banter'.

In the recent Cask Report, one of our main and most widely repeated headlines was that real ale drinkers no longer agree with the statement that 'real ale is not a drink for women or young people.' But nearly half of all publicans still DO agree with this statement.

The industry is behind the times when it comes to gender equality and relations with women. Someone in CAMRA - even if they personally felt the leaflet was fine and operated within the style and tone of contemporary studenty imagery - should have realised that it was simply too risky for a supposed consumer champion to use. If I try to tell my female friends that beer has thrown off its sexist image, as we were trying to suggest in the Cask Report, they could simply bring up this leaflet and laugh in my face.

It's good that CAMRA reacted so quickly and withdrew the offending article, but the damage is done. And what still upsets those who complained is that, while the organisation genuinely did not want to cause offence, it doesn't seem to understand why it did.