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Friday, January 29, 2010

Beer Labels: Normalization of Maleness and Whiteness?

A little grist for the mill, here. A commenter named Aaron posted an interesting link on my Rogue brand post yesterday. It's a sociological take on a particular element of beer packaging by Rachel McCarthy James, a beer drinker from the east coast:
Since I’m surrounded by the boxes all day, I begin to pick up on elements of their design. Namely, that males and whiteness are constantly normalized within the design of the boxes. [series of pictures.]

Excepting the daguerreotype-esque Southern Ale, all of the men above are shown enjoying the beer, usually while engaging in their daily duties or in making the beer. The cottonwood man is not actively engaged, but he is holding the wheat that will make the beer, thus conferring involvement in the beer on him. The Highlands man is somewhat othered by the bagpipes, and I’m not sure how the man in the Rogue ale is constructed, but both are drinking and enjoying the beer they’re intended to represent. They are active and involved – not passive, not just drinking the beer, not just there. They are constructed as dynamic and effectual as they drink the beer. And they are all white: men of color are erased in beer packaging as far as I’ve seen.
(Quick and dirty definition of "normalization" here.) The trouble with this analysis is that Rachel has accentuated certain elements, highlighted purportedly ignored elements, and ignored the overt, intentional elements. This is a problem. (As Rachel earned her cred at the outset of the post by mentioning that she was a beer drinker and that all the examples came from her own collection, I will earn mine by saying that I think her larger point is accurate, even while I disagree with her analysis here.)

Let's start with the obvious: beer is a European drink. If we looked at packages of prepackaged Indian food, we'd see a lot of ... Indians. This hardly suggests that men of no color have been erased. In her photos--which you should click through to study--she offers two examples that are nods to the country of origin for the beer (Scotland, Ireland), and a third is, I believe, King Gambrinus. One is Rogue's socialist, one is a silly pirate cartoon, and three more seem to harken back to American colonial brewing. And so on.

Where Rachel's surely on solid ground is noting that beer packaging is often sexist. (Though here Rogue gets nods for its use of non-exploitative images of everyday women.) I'm pleased that the Northwest would fare better than some regions on this score. Most of the packaging in the region lacks humans (Widmer, Full Sail, Deschutes, etc.), and where there are humans, they don't often exploit women. (Stumptown Tart, for shame.)

I do lament the whiteness of craft beer, though. Although Rachel's examples aren't perfectly illustrative of her larger point, I think it's clear that craft brewing is overwhelmingly white. When I go to pubs and beer fests, they are even more disproportionately white than our already-white city. How one works to change that isn't exactly clear, but I'm not sure packaging would affect it overmuch.

Anyway, go have a look and see what you think. (And let's keep the comments civil--I know this is a slightly controversial topic.)



  1. Ouch, Major spamage.

    I think the "beer advertising" is racist/sexist arguement is tired and silly. Beer companies in the 80's got flack for marketing beer towards young African American men in urban environments. They were attacked as racist and exploitative. No matter what you do there will always be race baters out there.

    As to it actuallybeing racist or sexist? I think brewers are just playing to their market. Most people in the US who drink beer are white males. While a beer could be nice and be all inclusive most wont do it if it hurts their bottom line, even small local ones.

    Another factor is that craft beer is more often being marketed at a younger crowd. People my age are very responsive to labels that exude cool, artsy, or are provocative in a non Coors way.

    Thirdly what about Rogues Chipotle Ale? That guy could be of a different nationality if he wasn't white on all the other bottles.

  2. Off the top of my head, what about North Coast Brother Thelonious? Maybe it's just a drop in the bucket but that's a pretty major representation of an African American icon on beer packaging.

  3. Jared, this is a difficulty--and strength--of market systems. Because the consumers are mostly white males, there's a propensity to cater to them--which, as Rachel notes, perpetuates the white maleness of the segment.

    On the other hand, businesses are also among the first to reach out to niche markets (including targets of prejudice) if they see sales there.

    And let's not forget my famous Terry Porter. (I think Hopworks or someone also did a Terry Porter.) Not a huge market, but folks appreciated the label.

  4. Because the consumers are mostly white males, there's a propensity to cater to them--which, as Rachel notes, perpetuates the white maleness of the segment.

    Yep. However, in my experience, that tends to be more of a macro thing than a micro, possibly because of lack of advertising dollars?

    I'm a nonwhite, female beer drinker (I'm queer too, if you want to go for the minority trifecta). I drink craft beer not because of the advertising, but because it tastes good, and in the PNW there is a great deal of diversity in beer that allows my geek side to shine.

    I find it a little amusing that Jared in one paragraph dismisses 'race baiters' and then in his final paragraph says someone could be a 'different nationality', as though people who aren't white cannot be natives of the US. I highly suggest the article "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" (PDF) for anyone who is interested in the interactions minorities of all types face every day that the majority never even notice.

    Captcha: Boomi, which is what we call my maternal grandmother. :D

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  9. I stand by my comment. It wasn't made to portray someone as non American simply because of physical differences but rather seemed the easiest way to highlite the difference on the bottle without assigning a particular race to the man on the bottle.

    I still don't think that maleness and whiteness are an issue. It could easily be because I am a white male. I tend to look at it other then a issue of sex and race.

    When I was in London I noticed beer labels are gender and race neutral in the sense that there are not usually characters on the bottle. They do however embrace their history and the history of England which is not gender or race neutral. Their clients however are from the British Isles so it makes sense to market beer this way.

    Go to Asia and you'll see beers advertised specificly using themes that are distinct to that region. I've had a couple beers from India that featured elephants and the taj mahal on the label.

    My arguement was that beer advertisement and labeling is a reflection of the primary customer base.

    Wether beer companies are to be held responsible for manipulating their customer base in order to provide gender and race neutrality is an entirely different subject.