Dan Fox
The views expressed in db Reader do not represent the views of the drinks business.

Irresponsible marketing and craft beer

If you want to hear a craft brewer whine, just ask about competing with Big Beer.

beer glassesMost will tell you they operate at incredible disadvantages versus their Goliath-sized opponents. Distributor access. Raw-material costs. Financial leverage. Transportation efficiency. You name it. Everything is an uphill battle for the little guys. Oh, they’ll brag about the advantage they enjoy when it comes to the flavor of their beer, but on the business side, woe is them.

They aren’t being entirely forthcoming.

In one critically important marketing aspect, craft brewers enjoy a powerful advantage over the likes of Budweiser, Miller, and Coors. In fact, if their beer formulations are the pebbles these Davids aim at Big Beer, this marketing advantage– an unfair advantage to boot– may be their slingshot.

One of the restrictions placed on breweries long ago prevented them from saying certain things about their beer. “Responsible marketing” meant avoiding unseemly selling tactics, however effective they might be. Very specific regulations and industry guidelines were adopted. And when interpretations were needed, erring toward caution became the path of choice.

For example, back in the late 1980s, the claim that had powered Coors Light’s growth over several years– “The Silver Bullet won’t slow you down”– was ultimately re-appraised by regulators. They decided it was akin to claiming multiple servings wouldn’t affect physical or mental acuity. End of claim.

Many marketing gimmicks in advertising, naming, and labeling were placed off-limits. This was especially true for wording or images deemed to promote underage drinking, celebrate alcohol-effect, or encourage irresponsible consumption. It was hard to disagree with these marketing no-fly zones, so beer companies learned to live with the restrictions, and in great part, police themselves. Ultimately, promoting responsible consumption became a point of pride for every major brewer, and for their distributors as well.

To this day, Big Beer still plays by these strict ethical-marketing rules. But apparently, not so all the crafties.

Shown here are ten particularly irresponsible craft-beer labels, at least as defined by traditional review standards. Although the notes in red are this writer’s, not a regulatory agency’s, I have personally witnessed comparable (but far tamer) label and name ideas so flagged and killed.In years past, not one of these labels would’ve been approved.


(To see the runners-up, click here.)
Exactly why such questionable labels and brand identities are getting a pass from regulators and public-interest groups remains a mystery. But it’s pretty clear what the motivation is behind their creation and use.
Responsibility-challenged appeals like these can be powerful marketing weapons, especially when aimed at the coveted younger drinker group. Permitting their use effectively grants a competitive edge to the brand owners. And since most craft brewers rarely advertise in more expensive media, label-rendered brand identities often represent their most important marketing investment. It’s a very advantageous place to garner special treatment, especially if a brewer is not constrained by conscience.
Are we over-stating how big a competitive advantage this ethical double-standard represents? Ask Anheuser-Busch Inbev how much more beer they could sell by advertising you can drink Bud Light… all day.

61 Responses to “Irresponsible marketing and craft beer”

  1. jeremy says:

    what are we in the 1950’s again? children today see much worse on their iPod’s and TV than the logos of the beers mentioned above. perhaps the author should actually read the labels of said beers to understand the name of them. dude should lose his privilege of writing professionally with this horse crap article. wait, i said horse, i am obviously trying to get children to read this comment.

  2. Bill W says:

    Seems to me you’re missing the point, jeremie. It’s about fairness. That all brewers should be treated equally. Regardless of their size.

    • Charles Goin says:

      NO YOU MISS THE POINT !!! The media needs to quit baby sitting everyone.. These are subtle attempts at humor for an adult audience.. to assume they are targeting children or anyone other than the craft Beer follower is IGNORANT.. Just like this article.

    • HeyBeerDan says:

      Bill – If this article had been part of a reading-comprehension exam, you– virtually alone among the commenters here– would merit a passing grade. But among the larger audience, you’d have good company.

      The longest and most thoughtful feedback I received actually came in an email from a principal in a midwestern craft brewery which had a label included in my piece. You might imagine he’d be hurling insults and grade-school name-calling of the sort seen here. But, no, he was complimentary, even while accurately predicting that the “craft Twitter-verse will fall down on you.”

      Most noteworthy, he related how, when his brewery submitted their label for government approval, they fully expected to hear back from regulators denying approval for precisely the reasons noted in the article. But it was approved without comment. So it seems even some craft brewers perceive the double-standard, the central premise of the article.

  3. james says:

    you sir obviously need to get a clue. come back to the real world!

  4. Charles Goin says:

    Seriously..? This the most idiotic article I have ever read. These are CRAFT beers, most are sold only in the hig end section of the Beer area in the grocery store.. but MOST require going to a specific BEER store. Has everyone lost all sense of humor and fun..? To whomever wrote this drivel.. GET OVER YOURSELF.

  5. Charles Goin says:

    Not only that.. These are usually expensive beers.. If you think someone is going to Binge drink on $10 6 packs.. you have no idea what you are writing about.

  6. Kevin todd says:

    Wow, that was the most irresponsibly ignorant article I have ever read. Ignoring the misteps on your examples, One particularly large flaw in your argument, you stated that these are overlooked and ignored, but one needs not look hard to find the regular bans on Christmas beers in Massachusetts distributed by Shelton Bros. for depicting Santa Claus. these bans are always challenged, and defeated in the courts. Massachusetts is always forced to let the beers hit the shelves, because the logic was flawed, the argument invalid, and there is no one shred of truth to saying that they were attempting to sell beer to kids by putting santa on the label.

  7. Zythologist says:

    This has to be a sarcastic article…right? If not,which of the Big 3 hired you to write this drivel?

  8. Paul says:

    I wonder whether “Dan Fox” works for InBev or Miller/Coors, or if he is perhaps a lobbyist for both. There is no way that anyone literate enough to write in complete sentences could possibly be stupid enough to believe what is being asserted in this article; this has to be a PR campaign aimed at the lowest possible common denominator.

  9. Bill says:

    What an asinine article. 2 minutes of my life, wasted.

  10. Shon Kelley says:

    Dan, this is all drivel.
    I hope you enjoyed the Budweiser you had after writing this article (probably a Blue Moon with an orange slice).
    You could have simply watched the documentary “Beer Wars” and realized that label art isn’t the issue.
    To each their own, I guess. Cheers, buddy.

  11. fiat128 says:

    People like you are utterly destroying America. Crawl back in your hole pussy! Children would never drink something as bitter as Hopslam. You are an idiot,

  12. Sandi Toxic says:

    I can’t believe I just read that. What a dreadful article. Unbelievable. [Comment Moderated]

  13. Matt Greff says:

    Is this an Onion article?

    • Karl Dickinson says:

      Damn it Matt! I was drinking a bottle of Mr delicious last night and Otis grabbed one of them because there was a cartoon character of you on the front! Tisk tisk.

  14. Mike Victory says:

    Was it a slow month? This is a feeble attempt at creating content from nothing. Laughable, all of it.

  15. Get real says:

    Is this a joke? Was this story written in 1958 and the photos chainged? Oh I know Tipper Gore wrote it… Now I get it.

  16. Ian says:

    This article is ridiculous and also inaccurate. I’m pretty sure Hopslam isn’t insinuating the effect of alcohol. It’s named for the amount,of hops in the beer and the hop flavor. I’m sure that In-Bev will go through all the labels and beer names of the craft companies the acquire to make sure that the get rid of anything that crosses the line.

  17. Craig Johnson says:

    “Hey Beer Dan” quietly and conveniently suggests “that big brewers learned to, in great part, police themselves”. REALLY? No mention of Bud Light Premium or Miller’s Fortune brands open advertising their higher alcohol content. Many laws still on the books that “enforce” such bureacratical nonsense were put there by the lobbyists of said Big Brewers. Some Ad guys for Budweiser may very well want to put All Day Bud on a can…. but its their own dizzying levels of Riosk Managers and swarms of lawyers that would kill it…..not the obviously underfunded TTB. I hope the authors next article is about Craft vs. Crafty vs. Crafties (his new invention). Can’t wait.

  18. nick says:

    I am a craft beer enthusiast, working in the industry for 5 years and drinking in it for more. I’m a cicerone certified beer server and home brewer. Craft beer is my life. What the author of this article posits is all very factual. Would Budweiser be able to release “Puppy Dog’s beer to drink all day long”? But Lagunitas, one of my personal favorite breweries can release Daytime IPA with a cute dog picture on the label. I’ll be the first one to tell you the regulations are out of control, but they are in place. So all parties should have to follow them. Whether or not you like wgatvthw author has said, he isnt wrong.

  19. Craig Johnson says:

    Oh well isn’t this interesting. Author’s Twitter handle? “A real beer guy on a thankless mission: Save the big beer brands.” Completely biased views presented as fact. WE REST OUR COLLECTIVE CASE. LOL.

  20. Ryan Meray says:

    I can’t tell if this is really bad satire or if it was just written by an idiot.

  21. Steven M says:

    What say you about Shock Top’s mascot? Animated Orange with a mohawk and sunglasses? Surely that appeals to children by your standards. On that note –

    “Exactly why such questionable labels and brand identities are getting a pass from regulators and public-interest groups remains a mystery. But it’s pretty clear what the motivation is behind their creation and use.”

    It’s pretty clear that putting Santa Claus or a Jack-o-Lantern on the beer label is only for the purpose of enticing children? Pretty terrible article there, drinks business.

  22. Tim says:

    This is by far the sh*ttiest attempt at concern-troll journalism I’ve seen all year. The writer is either a) humorless and ignorant of the playful tradition of craft beer naming, b) on a deadline and willing to be despicable to click-bait readers, or c) in the pay of a macrobrewer whose panties are all in a knot because their market share is being eaten by people who brew good beer and sell it at a fair price.

  23. Joe Brown says:

    I hope you didn’t get paid for this shallow hack “journalism”. Get a job Dan.

  24. Beer Baron says:

    Dan coined “Frost-Brewed” for Coors Light, pioneered the larger opening on all Coors aluminum cans


    Seems like a guy truly concerned with “binge drinking” among America’s youth. Maybe he can tell us of the genius behind 30-packs and the Coors Light Twins commercials during prime-time TV in his next “responsible marketing” article.

    Hack job from a hired gun. Nothing more to see people.

  25. Paul says:

    Dan, want to back this up with specifics, evidence, or other general forms of un-bullshit-ifying your piece?

    “Very specific regulations and industry guidelines were adopted. And when interpretations were needed, erring toward caution became the path of choice.”

  26. Chris H says:

    So this article is worried about craft breweries marketing to 8 Year Olds, as opposed to the big breweries gearing TV adds towards 18 Year Olds. Hummm

  27. Wr says:

    I just assumed it was a satire from an awesome craft brewer. Really it is almost too pathetic…

  28. The real db says:

    I guess adding an air vent feature on your can and widening the mouth opening does not suggest one can pour the yellow beer faster down ones throat? Cuz it sure would help me guzzle that swill, along with this article….. [Comment Moderated]

  29. Ian says:

    Are we talking about the same big breweries (for whom you are apparently a paid consultant) who have recently released cans and bottles designed to allow you to chug the beer faster? Or the same big brewers who advertise using talking lizards and other funny animals? Just curious.

  30. Burt says:

    This article is really dumb. #fail

  31. Kent w says:

    Dan how much did big beer pay you to write this insanely biased and flat out inaccurate article? All these beer labels you point out as not living up to “responsible marketing” were approved by the TTB just like all of AB and MillerCoors are. So your entire article is pointless and false. If you knew anything about craft beer you would know of labels that weren’t approved like Lagunitas censored ale that had a marijuana leaf on the label, was rejected by TTB so Tony Magee put duct tape over the leaf wrote censored and resubmitted it. And now they have censored ale as one of their beers.

  32. Jason B says:

    I love craft beer. I hate most macro brews. I understand these labels and like them. The labels of craft beers are the 2nd best part (far superior taste being the best part) of the craft brew phenomena. But being that I’m not just another example of an overly sensitive internet commenter I can appreciate the finer points this articles puts forth. First of which is the fact that these ultra conservative regulations exist at all. Second and far more interesting why the craft brewers have gotten a pass. Its a beer revolution and a great time to be a beer enthusiast!

  33. Allyn says:

    Very one sided article.
    Budweiser can use half naked women in their commercials, or pay for a NASCAR driver to take a sip from a tall boy in the winners circle and you’re pointing out craft beer labels?
    More research would have helped.

  34. Michael says:

    Every now and then I read an article, sit for 24 hours, ponder what on earth was the author thinking, very rarely do I comment on it worried that it may be viewed as a troll on the subject…
    You have not done your research, views (biased or not) are for the beholder but at some point common sense must prevail.
    In this industry we all have a responsibility to represent brands to the best of our ability and with the greater community in mind; craft beer is not mass marketed to saturate every single aspect of social behaviour. Craft beer is about independence, point of difference but most of all passion for flavour that can be created. The marketing, labels, adverts are part and parcel for this.
    You on the other hand seem to be looking through a peep hole, guided by your own hand trying to create a witch hunt on breweries because you decipher the labels as a reason to get drunk!
    Next time I suggest you take 24 hours and think about what you are writing, more importantly if you are going to select a minority of breweries, how about opening the review on the WHOLE market.

  35. MIBeerTaster says:

    What kid is going to spend 6 bucks on a craft beer, when he can get a case of Natty Light for 14 bucks? I like the labels, they are an art form themselves. Coca Cola uses cute Polar Bears for their ads, I’d much rather have my teenager drink a finely crafted, natural beer with responsibility, than drink that soda pop stuff.

  36. BarrysHypocrisy says:

    Awwwwww……..those poor, poor multi-billion dollar beer conglomerates got it soooooo bad. We should feel sorry for them and drink more of their watery beer.

    When I first read this article, I laughed because I thought it was a spoof. But then I realized that the author was serious and could only shake my head . This article makes this website look like amateur hour.

  37. Adam says:

    An unfair advantage(and unfair to the consumer) is having the ability to constantly produce beer that is at the very bottom of the allowable deviation in the advertised ABV….which is .3%……all in the name of profit.

    There’s no craft beer vs. big beer war going on. I’m just as intrigued to visit a large brewery as the big brewery guys are when they visit ours. It’s passionate people doing what love….just on a different scale.

    Pride is one thing…snobbery is another.

  38. MarcatGSB says:

    These comments are gold…as is the article. Talk about biased.
    Keep these great comments coming!

  39. Justin Whitehouse says:

    Session IPA encourages binge drinking? Ridiculous. Session beers have lower than normal alchohol content so that they can be enjoyed all day….. the EXACT OPPOSITE of the point of “binge drinking”. Then you try to call out a beer with the iconic Grateful Dead bear as “appealing to children”. Your invalid examples compromise the already specious premise of this article. What about the Budwieser frogs and lizards? What about “Spuds McKenzie? Where exactly is this “double standard”? I don’t see it.

    • Richard says:

      Or Hopslam, which is about getting slammed in the mouth with hops….not for getting intoxicated.

      I’m amazed the writer has a job. Surely this can’t be the only moronic article he has written. In fact, I invite the author to give an interview with The Better Beer Authority.


  40. KH says:

    Dan, I have two problems with the article.

    The first is that all of these lables had to go through the same federal approval process as those of MillerCoors, ABInBev, or any other brewery. There is no disadvantage since the macro breweries could submit similar labels if they wanted to do so and see if they get approved. So the main premise of your argument is false.

    The second is that you are misinterpreting several of the labels (pehaps purposely to support your premise). Number 10 actually refers to the beer being lower in alcohol than the standard IPA so that you can have more of them without getting lit up (not binge drinking). Number 8 refers to the amount of bitterness in the beer from an abundant use of hops, they are targeting the ‘hopheads’ with the name hopslam. Number 7 is a tribute beer to the Greatful Dead (I have a hard time believing you wouldn’t recognize that bear as being the Grateful Dead’s). As for number 2, If you wanted to pick on a Sweetwater label you should have chosen 420. Since when does going on a road trip imply it has to be done while drinking?

  41. Tim says:

    First, how much did Coors pay you to write this nonsense? Second, if you honestly believe that the big three actually care this much about overconsumption then you need to come back to reality. They care from the stand point of being held responsible for the actions of their patrons. If they were never held liable for drunk accidents, they would care even less. In a lot of states, these beverages are not sold outside of stores that specialize in alcohol. Traditional grocery stores are beginning to carry the larger producers like Sam Adams, Sierra Nevada and New Belgiun but mostly, that’s it. You forget that these people don’t typically advertise on TV where kids are likely to see it. You also forget that these companies have to compete with their fellow “crafties” to sell their product. Clever names and double meanings are funny and memorable.

    Who exactly is a horse and a dog becoming friends and establishing a life long bond aimed at?

    You actually pointed to a picture of a Greatful Dead Bear and said it appeals to kids. They promoted drug use and free love. Does that mean we need to boycot craft ice cream makers because they have a flavor named after the lead singer? Of course not, ice cream is ok for kids. It doesn’t make them unhealthy or spoil them or anything.

    In this world, there is a term that is widely used for low alcohol content beer called “session beer”. Why should we, as Americans, be uptight about it? It doesn’t promote anything to kids because most likely, they don’t know what it means.

    Give kids and people a little more credit than that and don’t be all butt hurt because the craft beer industry continues to grow while the big three lose despite the fact that craft beer has to rely on untraditional marketing. It’s a natural progression. The younger generation wants quality and is willing to pay a premium for it.

  42. swtchy says:

    Oh boo hoo, you pooooor big breweries, losing some ground to the crafties??? poor you.

  43. Travis says:

    FYI, my seven year olds favorite Super Bowl commercial was the bud puppy/horse one.

  44. Travis says:

    Oh, and what about all these kids running around sporting Dale Jr/Budweiser hats, shirts, and other clothing. There are even matchbox style toy cars with the bud logo on them. How is this not marketing to kids.

    I also find it interesting that your bio on your blog states “Dan coined “Frost-Brewed” for Coors Light, pioneered the larger opening on all Coors aluminum cans (subsequently adopted industry-wide… How could getting more beer out faster be a bad idea?), and…” Promotion of Binge drinking anyone?

  45. Harold Togle says:

    Mr. Fox, I don’t doubt that you are sincere, and that your complaints make sense to you, but consider yourself a just another journo reaching for content. For example, no reasonable person believes that the Santa Clause on the Lagunitas label appeals to children. It’s actually kind of creepy. But, to you, it’s bald-faced, crass capitalism, putting profits over the welfare of children. The reason that craft brewers aren’t held to as high a standard is because they are small and therefore do not nationally advertise. If you recall, children are not permitted in liquor stores. There is really no story here.

  46. Regulations are almost never a unilateral consideration. By design they are meant to avoid widespread problems, not police every instance that stands no chance of having an impact. Part of the regulatory environment considers the distribution spread and scale of an operation as part of the risk. It’s why small companies can put caffeine in their products but Four Loko gets pinged. When a product has enough accessibility and popularity, regulators tighten up the restrictions to avoid a nationwide issue. It’s not favoritism of any sort, it’s proper execution of the original intent of the laws. As craft brewers get larger, they too will be considered with a more restrictive eye on labeling and contents, ex coffee beers.

  47. Andrew says:

    Seems like Big Beer propaganda to me. Who signs your paycheck Dan Fox, ABInbev, MillerCoors?

  48. Rod says:

    Dan quit while you are ahead, stick to writing about big breweries you know nothing about the craft beer industry.

  49. Mike says:

    Have to agree that was a fairly weak and cheap shot – for what it is worth here is an old blog of mine in relation to the rather awful and sexist labels and clips that still crop up in the UK from time to time: http://mybeerfairy.wordpress.com/2013/03/22/the-art-of-beer-or-never-judge-a-drink-by-its-cover/

  50. John Skupny says:

    Reading this premise makes me feel like and arrogant bastard!

  51. Abel U says:

    Comments I’ve read are EXACTLY why some people hate beer snobs… and they mightbe worse than wine snobs!

    It is what it is… rules are rules… and if the big guys want to keep their share from falling more, they may resort to these tactics. Looks like no one here runs a craft brewery; cuz I would damn sure have my labels rubber stamped approved by all the government agencies I needed… but do keep on wearing your tin foil and contributing NOTHING to the discussion. Everyone hates a fanboy

  52. Danno says:

    The problem with the article is the only reference to failed marketing efforts by big brewers is from a long ago expired Coors campaign that occurred before the craft boom even hit. I can only take it at face value that the author has seen similar label concepts rejected in the past, but without specific examples it’s hard for anyone reading the article to make an informed decision. For what it’s worth, I think an illustration of a man trapped under a giant hop cone celebrates the effect of the hops, not the alcohol, and labeling Bell’s “irresponsible” is grossly unfair and doesn’t pass “reasonable person” muster.

  53. Chris B says:

    They do regulate the craft beers. I assume they just can’t keep up with all the labels. Check out this label for Hoppy Face Red Ale. http://www.hoppy.com/thebeer/sfra_big.html Regulator made us remove the red in eyes. 🙂

  54. Beer Coup says:

    The majority of these comments stem from a confusing defensiveness of Craft Beer which has been initially prompted by Craft Brewers with their propagandist takes on the Big Beer.

    Nevertheless, I am very happy to see so many passionate Craft Beer lovers – it fills me with hope for the industry.

    Having said that, Dan makes some very valid points regarding Craft Beer labelling, but all of them can be counter-acted quite easily:

    1 – Craft Beers aren’t advertised in mass on TV, nor are they readily available in (UK) supermarkets (except for two or three BrewDog products and Brooklyn/Sam Adams Lager) – this means that children are very unlikely to see labelling

    2 – Craft Beers have a substantial price premium indicating that even labels “encouraging” binge drinking would be thwarted by the significant price difference between those and domestic beers

    3 – Supermarkets aren’t able to place heavy discounts/promotions on Craft Beers without losing significant margin – the main issue contributing to binge drinking

    Nevertheless, this is not an article condemning the practices of Craft Beer, moreover an attempt to question and compare current practices to those which Big Beer have had to follow.

    However, this does not change the fact that I am happy Big Beer is continuously losing market share as a result of Craft Beer marketing practices – SMILEY FACE.

  55. Ken Morrison says:

    My one argument with the piece (the one I will make here) is, in reality, how much are “kids” exposed to craft beer? Unless their parents are drinking it on a regular basis, or they are cursing craft beer websites on their own time, 98% of kids in America have probably never seen any of these labels, and never will, unless they are walking down the beer isle of a liquor store. Conversely, how many 4th grades and identify a Budweiser logo, or know what Coors is? If the big guys want to cry about fairness, then I think we should treat alcohol marketing much like we do cigarettes. I bet the big guys would love that, and it would have just about 0 effect on 95% of the breweries in America.

  56. Dan says:

    This coming from the guy who “pioneered the larger opening on all Coors aluminum cans… [for the purpose of] getting more beer out faster.” Irresponsibility, duplicity, thy names are Dan Fox.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to our newsletters