Thursday 14 December 2017

Child's play

Regular readers of this blog will have realised that I don’t have much enthusiasm for selling beer in “child-sized” 330 ml cans, or for adorning them with vibrant psychedelic colours. But that doesn’t mean I gained any pleasure from the decision of the Portman Group to require Tiny Rebel Brewery to change the design of the cans for their Cwtch Welsh Red Ale on the supposed groups that they had undue appeal to under-18s. And nor, it would seem, did my Twitter followers. That’s by far the biggest response I’ve ever gained for any Twitter poll.
Of course it’s something that is open to debate, and several voices were raised in the beer world arguing that the decision seemed reasonable enough, for example by Boak & Bailey.

The full text of the adjudication, including Tiny Rebel’s exhaustive attempts to defend their position, can be read here. The brewery have now responded in detail to their decision, setting out clearly their concerns about the potential wider implications.

We’re not the victim here. The industry is.

This sets a precedent, but the boundaries on that precedent aren’t clear and the decisions are enormously subjective, and take in a very limited view of the world. How the hell do you not appeal to under 18s?! There is no clear difference between what is and isn’t allowed, and that’s a major problem.

It forces companies to be over-cautious in design, which is inherently limiting. Instead of designing something for what consumers would like, companies have to design bearing what the most prudish among us wouldn’t like.

Taken in isolation, the matter is relatively trivial, and it doesn’t stop anyone from selling or drinking a can of Cwtch. The photo above clearly shows the relatively minor nature of the changes that were required. But the case does raise a number of more general issues.

The first is that the investigation was triggered by just a single complaint. Can we be confident that was from a genuine member of the public rather than some purse-lipped professional health zealot? And is it reasonable that one vexatious miseryguts can cause a relatively small business having to incur – as they say themselves on their site – costs in excess of £31,000? The potential scope for mischief is boundless.

It is absolutely clear than there was no deliberate intention on the part of Tiny Rebel to target children, and is it really credible that any child would genuinely mistake it for a soft drink? One point made in the adjudication was that 330ml cans are widely associated with soft drinks, but they have been used for many years for beers such as Gold Label and Mackeson, and are now commonplace for craft beers. The major soft drink brands tend to use minimalistic designs highlighting the brand name and completely eschewing cartoon characters. Might we see in future particularly types and sizes of packaging being mandated for alcoholic drinks to distinguish them from soft ones?

It’s also not hard to see this as a baby step on the road to plain packaging for alcoholic drinks, as suggested on Twitter:

The restrictions on what is acceptable are likely, slowly but surely, to become ever tighter.

As explained in Tiny Rebel’s response, the Portman Group is a self-regulatory organisation set up and run by major alcohol companies. Some have suggested that it constitutes a kind of restraint of trade by seeking to stifle the innovative efforts of smaller producers. I’m not really convinced by that, but it’s a funny kind of self-regulation where you’re subject to its judgments even if you haven’t signed up to it. If large companies avoid its censure, it will be because their marketing departments are more savvy as to what will pass muster. But it does have form in cracking down on tiny breweries over the same kind of issue.

Several people have made the point that surely self-regulation is preferable to a system imposed by government. But the question has to be asked as to how far industry should be prepared to undermine its own business on a voluntary basis. We have already seen this with the drinks industry having its arm twisted to reduce the strength of popular beers and ciders, and the food industry being pressurised to reduce the sugar content of soft drinks, confectionery and cereals, often at the expense of taste. If you’re going to be crucified anyway, it’s little consolation that you’ve been allowed to build your own cross.

Alarmism? Scaremongering? Yes, these points may at present only be straws in the wind. But they will need to be carefully watched in future to see how far we end up going down the road. And we have already seen it all unfold before our eyes with the regulation of tobacco products.


  1. Hi Curmudgeon,
    Noticed you comment about hotels with smoking rooms under the B&B article. I use Expedia and, thinking back, have never come across a smoking room. However

  2. The odd thing was that this was a point of sale complaint.

    You go to the beer aisle, you approach the £2+ craft beers, and amongst the 330ml cans, you spot a colourful can, and you immediately think "this must be a soft drink"? No, no you do not, you know where you are, and you know you wouldn't spend that money on a soft drink (and a young person certainly wouldn't). It would take an act of mischief to move the cans and put them elsewhere - but this isn't the brewery's fault.

    However, at home, this can might be in the fridge alongside other cans of soft drinks, and an under-18-yo might go to the fridge for a soft drink, and mistake this for a soft-drink, despite the words on the can saying it's beer. It's vaguely viable that this is an issue.

  3. Yeah, it seems more likely that a child could open it by mistake in the house, wasting a beer. It would be an odd set of circumstances where it was sold to a child.

    There's also the issue of consistency, if you're going to stop alcopop makers selling their booze with cartoon characters, you can't give brewers an exception because they're craft. You'd have an endless debate about what was appealing to kids and what exactly craft was.

  4. I'm in two minds over this one. My first reaction is that beer is supposed to be sold to over eighteens only, so it doesn't matter what it looks like, it's up to the seller not to sell it to underage people. And also up to the buyer to obey the law. In all my years of working in pubs, I never once saw any consequences for under age people trying to buy booze, only to people selling it to them
    In the current climate though, with hugely expensive and unneccessary legislation already out in also in the pipeline, plain packaging in particular, businesses don't help themselves when they blatantly produce products doing exactly what the campaigners are moaning about
    Let's be honest, those cans are designed to be more appealing to teenagers than mainstream products. You can't look at that design and see otherwise.
    There was also an ecig company in my local papers recently that were selling some marsh mellow or something flavoured liquids in replica lunch boxes

    If companies are only selling responsible products, responsibly marketed, they can take the high road when busybody campaigners say they should be regulated. Companies like this who are deliberately producing provocative artwork and then crying foul when someone inevitably moans about it, are not doing themselves or the wider industry any favours

  5. I've made a similar comment on another blog but would you be happy if you made an official complaint about something and got told "we're ignoring your complaint as there's only one of you"? As I once had a complaint I made against a multinational's advertising I'm quite happy that one complaint sets the wheels in motion.

    1. Having a right to complain doesn't mean you have a right to be taken seriously. I'm not saying this was, but it's not hard to imagine a "vexatious complainant" firing off a barrage of complaints that end up placing an unreasonable burden on the companies concerned. And do we want policy to be dictated by an unrepresentative minority of "Disgusteds of Tunbridge Wells"?

  6. All the moaning about this decision is basically because it's a craft brewer & CAMRA winner.

    If Fosters released a craft lager with designed in a similar manner the response would be ha ha, they deserved it & you can't put teddy bears on beer cans. But this is different because it's craft.

    If part of the iconography of craft is infantile & it's all about pushing boundaries then once in a while someone will cross a boundary and get their knuckles rapped.

    By all means let craft fund the regulator but if beers are marketed with teddy bears and that is deemed okay by the industry you are basically asking for a government quango.

    1. As you know, I'm no cheerleader for craft, and I have no time for the argument that this was some kind of stitch-up by the big brewers. But, as said in the post, it does raise important issues that will need to be watched in future.

      Maybe we will move to a situation where all beer cans and bottle labels have to be done in sober dark colours, and the only images permitted will be suits of armour, shire horses, steam locomotives and elderly tom cats.

    2. So, basically it will wind up like bloody cigarettes; plain packaging and only accessible from a locked cabinet behind the counter where customers can't get at it. ��

    3. That's the ultimate objective, yes.

    4. OMG the restriction on artistic licence. Guess we'll never see Noddy beer or Telly Tubbie beer. Your dream collab between Postman Pat & Fireman Sam is up the swanny. Never mind. Console yourself with a grown up can of lout.

    5. Hang on. What with the current sugar scare surely if wee children are going to be influenced by what's on the outside then cereals should be held to the same standard?

      I mean, just look at some of these:

      The wolf on Cookie Crisp looks like it's right out of Red Riding Hood. And Lucky Charms with the Leprechaun? Surely that's cultural appropriation! As for Ricicles, some impressionable child is going to have a bowl of that and they try to fly by jumping off the roof. And I don't know about you but if I was young seeing the picture on Honey Monster would have me frightened at night of what might be under my bed or hiding in my closet. :)


  7. It might have been a sole complaint, but that's irrelevant. The question is, was the complaint justified? Portman Group certainly think so. Tiny Rebel's response is centred around Portman procedures - which they should have been aware of - and how much it cost them. The Tiny Rebel teddy might be core branding for them but you'd think they'd have considered it might have fallen foul of the code whether you agree with it or not. To me it just looks like a caricature of a pissed smackhead lying on the pavement - hardly rebellious.

  8. It appears that Portman by acting on a sole complaint may have acted disproportionately,a similar body,the ASA,which regulates advertising will not take action until a number of complaints have been raised which reduces the risk of acting on an isolated complaint made by a bigot or zealot. Tiny Rebel also make a valid point that there are no representatives of its sector of the industry in the Portman Group and there is therefore a real risk of a stitch up by the big brewers

    1. There's a difference between complaints on grounds of fact or law, and complaints that are a matter of opinion, and this one falls into the second category. Also compare the BBC who rightly won't be very impressed if a single Mrs Miggins lodges a complaint that somebody said "knob" before the watershed and therefore the end of civilisation is nigh.

      Shouldn't any complainant also have to declare an interest if they work in the industry or the medical profession, or are members of any campaign group?

  9. The other Mudgie !17 December 2017 at 17:32

    Worse than the childish teddy bear image are the words "Supreme Champion Beer of Britain 2015" an accolade won by the cask beer of that name, not the canned one.

  10. The other Mudgie !19 December 2017 at 16:55

    I can well understand Richard Coldwell commenting "I don’t usually go for Tiny Rebel beers, I find the juvenile pump clips and the can designs off putting. Makes me think I’m drinking alcopops".

    1. Yes, and as I said in the post I don't much care for their can designs, or indeed for 330 ml beer cans in general (except for very strong beers). But there's no point in defending freedom if you're only going to stand up for the things you actually like.

  11. The other Mudgie !10 January 2018 at 17:18

    The investigation and change of design was triggered by just a single complaint.
    Now the tragic suicide of a 25 year old whose “family were ‘convinced’ his intake of more than 15 cans a day had increased his anxiety and contributed to his death” has resulted in an MP calling for a ban on high-caffeine energy drinks for under-16s.
    No matter that millions of Britons of all ages regularly consume cans of high-caffeine energy drinks without any problems.
    And then coffee will be next because one person might have been adversely affected by regularly drinking fifteen double espressos each day.
    And then there must be doubts about tea too.

    1. And the unfortunate chap concerned was 25, so what difference is a ban on sales to under-16s going to make?

  12. The other Mudgie !13 January 2018 at 02:09

    Yes, and there’s that law of unintended consequences so fifteen year olds who have never heard of high-caffeine energy drinks will realise they’re only meant for older people, conclude that, like sex and alcohol, they must be good so the decision is then whether to shoplift of get an older brother to buy some.


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