Walking the Line: Sexuality in Craft Beer
Does craft beer's use of sex differ from Big Beer?Drink Features craft beer
When you read the words “sexuality in beer,” it’s only natural for the first reaction to be thoughts of the Golden Era of Big Beer television advertising. The ‘80s and ‘90s-era commercials for Budweiser, Miller and Coors are so indelibly associated with phrases like “bikini model” that if you asked a random sampling of adult males to describe a “stereotypical ‘80s Budweiser commercial” to you, they’d almost invariably conjure one at the beach involving waggling butts, colorful bathing suits and the impish chick magnet that was Spuds MacKenzie. Or in other words, essentially this commercial.
That kind of advertising has always been par for the course when it comes to macro beer, and it would be foolish to think it hasn’t been a factor in the line of thinking that led beer to be seen as a predominantly “male drink” by so many in the pre-craft era. When it comes to sexuality in beer marketing it’s almost a guarantee that the ones being titillated have been men, which simultaneously sends an equally strong message to women—you’re not welcome here, unless you’re a model holding the product and smiling. Or a “willfully disobedient” blonde mermaid on an IPA label, as in the image at the top of this piece.
How, then, does the craft beer market truly differ when it comes to depicting or employing sexuality in their marketing? The small breweries thrive in the court of public opinion by presenting themselves as honest, egalitarian and all-inclusive; artisans struggling against the behemoth that is Big Beer, but it’s difficult to truly compare their marketing in a meaningful way when the level of resources is so very different. The question boils down to this: Have we never seen a craft brewery’s bikini babe TV commercial because the breweries don’t believe in that style of advertising? Or is it simply because they don’t have the funding for national TV exposure? And as regional craft brewers continue to grow larger and their “craft” credentials grow more nebulous, should we expect craft beer marketing to follow at the sexualized heels of Big Beer marketing?
Certainly, there has always been a minority current of immaturity and misogyny, even in craft beer. The social media era, however, has created an outlet for registering disappointment or outright disgust at some of the worst examples. To call on one of the very worst labels:
Yep. A blueberry beer, thinly veiled with the name “Panty Dropper,” and literal panties dropping on the label. Where to even begin? With the implication that getting a woman to drink this beer will make it easier to have sex with her? Or the implication that drugging a woman is a great way to achieve coitus in the first place? Or, with the simple fact that it implies only a woman would possibly be interested in a fruit beer to begin with? It’s terrible on so many levels, it boggles the mind.
Of course, if that one is too subtle for you, there are also plenty in the vein of this beer from Buckeye Brewing, “Summer Girl.”
This is, in my mind, about as close as a craft brewery can possibly come to a vintage Budweiser ad, to the point where they might as well be indistinguishable. If you don’t like those examples, then there’s plentyof othersto choose from. There’s no defending them. They’re just awful—in a sexist sense, in a design sense, and in an economic sense.
If craft breweries are unconvinced by those first few reasons, they should at least be listening to the third. Women, and young women in particular, are statistically among craft beer’s strongest supporters per capita, and they consume significantly above the national average of craft beer as a group. Indeed, craft beer has passed wine as the #1 alcohol choice among women 21-34. This group alone counts for 15% of total craft beer consumption, and women in general consumed 33% of all craft beer in the U.S. as of 2014—a number that is no doubt even higher now. It’s not going to be long before craft beer consumption is truly egalitarian.
Therefore, even if it was proven that sex does sell to a certain segment of the male market, could the resulting boost in sales from male craft beer drinkers really be more significant than the likelihood of losing out on the female drinkers who make up 1/3rd (and growing) of the market? In a few years, when that number is drawing closer to 50%, will these breweries still be choosing to market to only half of their potential customers? How stupid would that be?
One should consider, though, that the idea of “sexuality” crossing paths with craft beer is not an automatic negative in the eyes of every woman in this community … in fact, some embrace it unabashedly or use it for self-promotion. Take an Instagram account like the Craft Beer Vixen, whose proprietor posts beer reviews accompanied by a variety of mildly risque selfies, while fundraising for the charity Autism Speaks. A viewer might be conflicted about the message, or concerned that it creates an unrealistic expectation for how female craft beer fans are supposed to look or behave, but at the same time you can’t deny that person the right to both express her sexuality how she pleases and raise money for charity at the same time. It’s a complex issue.
In recognition of this, I decided to reach out to female members of Atlanta’s local beer community, seeking their opinions on sexuality as it applies to marketing in craft beer. I was ultimately able to speak to a good variety of female craft beer drinkers, including women actively working in the industry and those who are simply weighing in on marketing as consumers. I’ve collected a few of the pertinent questions below. Keep in mind—these are the responses of a group that accounts for 33% and growing of craft beer consumption.
On if there’s an inherent problem with sexuality in advertising
“It’s very problematic for me. But I’m not limited to that opinion in craft beer, I’d feel that way about any product that used male-perspective female sexuality to entice customers. I’m not enticed, and it makes me feel significant distance between me and the brand—these are not my people. I also find it to be a short-sighted way to be in business. Why would you alienate 50% of the population that happens to account for about 70% of the grocery store purchases? I feel like a brand using that marketing doesn’t take itself seriously, and so I don’t either. I assume that the beer is of lower quality and that the business people behind it are ill-advised at best, totally clueless at worst.” – Nancy Palmer, Executive Director of the Georgia Craft Brewer’s Guild
“By making a label that is very clearly going to be offensive to a portion of the craft beer drinking (and buying!) population, you’ve pigeon-holed yourself and limited the commercial viability. For breweries that are okay with remaining niche and appearing counter-culture, they should go for it. I think they make themselves look like idiots, or worse, and in the end the market will squeeze them out. I would group the labels you called out along with labels like Against The Grain’s Brown Note. It’s not appealing or funny, it’s just plain yucky.” – Victoria Lynn, beer consumer and advisor at Noble Brewer Beer Co.
“Beer bottles now show up as a part of weekly bible study group discussions, enjoyed at upscale weddings, served in 5-star establishments and drank at the White House in front of the Press Corp. By having aggressive marketing, and especially lewd labeling, you are forcing these types of beer drinkers to make a choice that is not based on style, quality or integrity of the beverage itself. Those breweries are absolutely relegating themselves to an underdog, punk-rock, subversive culture.” – Samantha Jane Eaves, self-described average beer consumer
On how the exploitation of sexuality affects their buying habits
“I just won’t ever buy it—it’s not ever okay for me. I spend a larger portion of my life than I would like explaining to my conservative family members that my interest in visiting breweries, homebrewing and BJCP judging is more than getting drunk and getting into trouble. I won’t risk looking like a jackass just because some brewers thought it was cool to be a jackass. THAT being said-“scantily clad women” can still be tasteful and artistic without being lewd. Though strict conservatives would argue differently, I can clearly draw a line in the sand between scantily clad women and overtly sexualized women. And I do with my purchasing power.” – Samantha Jane Eaves
On whether a scantily clad male, “beefcake” ad would be any different.
“I can’t say that I’d like that either, but it goes back to whether or not these are serious business people or not. I just can’t imagine where something like that would serve to communicate anything about the beer or the company.” – Nancy Palmer
“No different. Again could possibly be artistic, but it would more likely be used to appeal to common denominator in an overly sexualized manner.” – Samantha Jane Eaves
On the hiring of models to promote craft beer on Instagram, such as Resignation Brewery’s “KCCO beer girls”
“This is a gross way of convincing women to use craft beer to get more attention and followings on Instagram, sexualizing a highly democratic product and reinforcing the message that it’s okay to sexualize women to sell beer. In fairness, these women are electing to show themselves this way, and it speaks more to our current society than craft beer itself—but by perpetuating the practice, craft beer is edging itself closer and closer to the big beers it so loves to stand apart from.” – Victoria Lynn
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On whether it’s possible to market specifically to women or men without coming off as sexist, and what would work better
“I don’t think women need their own line up of tropes that indicate, ‘hey, ladies!’ but the avoidance of the tropes that have a masculine tinge is enough to market to everyone. Brands like Modern Times, Off Color, Prairie, Westbrook, Creature Comforts, etc. are great examples of what beer marketing could be. Of course, for female beer nerds, we love whales as much as the next guy and I don’t really care that the brand uses comic sans on their label or has yet another graphical rendition of a hop (“Oh! There’s hops in this beer!”). But for women just entering the craft beer landscape, there are some things that guys can avoid that will leave them marketing to everyone. It’s not about doing any one thing, its about not doing a couple things.” – Nancy Palmer
“Women do not drink exactly like men. Though it would be shortsighted for a brewery to think styles or volume were the extent of the drinking/gender differences. Finding the appropriate differences and using those differences wisely (such as the way t-shirt makers vary their styles of cuts), makes good business sense. Acknowledging that the differences between each woman or between each man vary much wider than the differences between genders as groups, would be even wiser.” – Samantha Jane Eaves
That final sentiment, I believe, speaks volumes, so allow me to revisit it for just a moment. The differences between each beer drinker, regardless of their gender or any other factor, are much greater and more relevant than perceived differences between “male craft beer drinkers” and “female craft beer drinkers,” and this is how breweries should probably be thinking when attempting to tailor their marketing to target a specific group.
Sexuality in advertising and marketing, on the other hand, is unsurprisingly still a sensitive topic, even in 2016. As one of the women above points out, it can be useful in establishing a reputation as “counter culture” or specifically targeting a certain segment of drinkers, but in a beer landscape that is more egalitarian every single year in terms of consumption, that just seems like poor economic sense. There will likely always be beer labels out there that exist bearing images of scantily clad women, using sex as a crutch, but I join the women I was able to interview in hoping these breweries never become anything more than they are now—an embarrassing but easily ignored undercurrent to the craft beer community.
In the end, it’s up to the consumers, who vote with their dollars. Are you in the market for craft beer titillation?
Jim Vorel is Paste’s news editor, and he likes his beer labels classy. You can follow him on Twitter.