Portman Group v. Infantile Can Designs

The label for Cwtch.

News broke this morning that a complaint against the design of the can for Tiny Rebel’s Cwtch has been upheld by the Portman Group.

The Port­man Group is the beer indus­try’s organ for self-reg­u­la­tion, the pur­pose of which is, broad­ly speak­ing, to head off this kind of issue before things get real­ly heavy. The com­plaint against Cwtch was that “a mem­ber of the pub­lic, believed that the prod­uct wasn’t obvi­ous­ly alco­holic, due to the design, and also had a par­tic­u­lar appeal to chil­dren”.

We have a few thoughts on this.

First, we’ve been wait­ing for some­thing like this to hap­pen. As we wrote back in March 2016 craft beer cans often fea­ture designs that mean they resem­ble soft drinks, and the bor­der­line between fun and down­right infan­tile is pret­ty fine. How do you design some­thing that will appeal to a 19-year-old but not to a 17-year-old? This is an espe­cial­ly impor­tant ques­tion giv­en that the for­mer has been a large part of the suc­cess of the crop of craft brew­eries that have emerged in the last decade or so.

What per­haps does­n’t help is how often we see peo­ple chortling on social media that, tee hee, craft beer cans are great because The Man assumes you’re drink­ing pop! Heck, we’ve even played this game our­selves. And, vice ver­sa, when peo­ple are con­stant­ly post­ing pic­tures of fizzy pop cans with vari­a­tions on the joke, “This new IPA looks inter­est­ing.”

Then there’s a sec­ond point: the nag­ging sus­pi­cion we’ve had that Tiny Rebel have been fol­low­ing the Brew­Dog play­book (Brew Bri­tan­nia, chap­ter 14) and angling for some kind of dis­pute in which they are the oppressed under­dog for PR pur­pos­es. We’re sure they must have known that the pack­ag­ing was provoca­tive – ted­dy bears! Can­dy! Car­toon char­ac­ters! – just as Brew­Dog knew Speed­ball was back in 2008. In addi­tion Tiny Rebel seem to have been active­ly engaged in what we’d call ‘trade­mark bait­ing’, ref­er­enc­ing char­ac­ters owned by huge cor­po­ra­tions such as Nin­ten­do (Princess Peach), Dis­ney (Darth Vad­er) and Sony (the Stay Puft Marsh­mal­low Man). So far they’ve got away with it, as have Robin­son’s, which we sup­pose makes it a win-win.

Then again, maybe we’re wrong. After all, the Port­man Group’s judge­ment sug­gests that Tiny Rebel played ball through­out the process and have agreed to change the pack­ag­ing.

Any­way, on bal­ance, the judge­ment seems fair enough to us, and hard­ly dra­con­ian. It would cer­tain­ly seem less con­tro­ver­sial if it as AB-InBev or Carslberg in the fir­ing line, would­n’t it? This kind of back-and-forth over mar­gin­al cas­es is far bet­ter than hard-and-fast rules which tend to push the bound­ary back well into the safe­ty zone. We would cer­tain­ly start to wor­ry, though, if these rul­ings begin to pile up and lead to, say, a de fac­to ban on the use of bright colours.

We came to this sto­ry via Char­lie AKA @craftybeeress who blogs at craftybeeress.com – give her a fol­low!

29 thoughts on “Portman Group v. Infantile Can Designs”

  1. Hmmm. I’d be inter­est­ed to know who this “one mem­ber of the pub­lic” was? A ran­dom busy­body with noth­ing bet­ter to do; or a shill for a cam­paign­ing group with a par­tic­u­lar agen­dum. As tweet­ed yes­ter­day: “Drip, drip, drip: https://www.beerguild.co.uk/news/cwtch-complaint-upheld/ … … The anti-alco­hol brigade take anoth­er lit­tle step towards their next goal of plain pack­ag­ing, with the fool­ish con­nivance of Port­man Group. You weren’t the tar­get @tinyrebelbrewco , just a minor casu­al­ty in a much big­ger cam­paign.”
    Whether it was just a gen­uine one-off con­cern from a pass­er-by of a shelf of beers, or a rather more con­trived com­plaint, sus­pect there’ll be numer­ous “health intrud­ers” look­ing at this case eager­ly, con­sid­er­ing where they can take it next.

    1. I dun­no, this kind of thing always sounds a bit hys­ter­i­cal to me. You’re prob­a­bly right that there might be a few more com­plaints along these lines but (see Gam­ma Ray com­ment below) Port­man seems to judge each on its own mer­its and brew­ers prob­a­bly know, in their heart of hearts, if they’re nudg­ing at the line.

  2. It’s impor­tant to draw a dis­tinc­tion between “things I don’t like” and “things I want to see banned”. After all, there’s lit­tle point in stand­ing up for free­dom if the only free­doms you defend are the ones you approve of.

    I don’t see it as cred­i­ble that, in prac­tice, lit­tle kids will be reach­ing out for these because of the shiny pack­ag­ing.

    And, fif­teen years down the line, will peo­ple be say­ing “this plain pack­ag­ing for beer’s not too bad. It allows the essen­tial qual­i­ties of the prod­uct to shine through with­out any dis­tract­ing images”?

    1. As Matt Cur­tis flagged ear­li­er, a sim­i­lar com­plaint against Beaver­town Gam­ma Ray was over­turned by Port­man a while ago, so there’s no rea­son to see this as a thin-end-of-the-wedge inevitabil­i­ty. They judge each case indi­vid­u­al­ly and (it’s always seemed to us) pass this kind of judge­ment quite reluc­tant­ly. Just often enough, and with just enough sever­i­ty, in fact, to sup­port the case for the indus­try to con­tin­ue reg­u­lat­ing itself rather than the gov­ern­ment tak­ing on the job.

      And I think I’m right in say­ing: it isn’t a ban! As I under­stand it, Tiny Rebel could choose to ignore Port­man, as long as they don’t mind los­ing out on super­mar­ket sales and chain pubs.

      1. If it means clos­ing off the main dis­tri­b­u­tion chan­nels, then effec­tive­ly it is a ban for a com­pa­ny oper­at­ing in a com­mer­cial envi­ron­ment. To give anoth­er exam­ple, it isn’t ille­gal to smoke in hotel bed­rooms. But none of the major inter­net book­ing sites will list hotels that allow it in *any* of their rooms, so it ends up being a de fac­to ban.

    2. I agree with Pub Cur­mud­geon on this point. This sort of sil­ly com­plaint (and it’s equal­ly daft uphold­ing) is a moral pan­ic in the mak­ing.

      As if 14 and 15 year olds are going to be drink­ing crafty red ales, which (while I love red ales) is hard­ly the sex­i­est of styles (mmm… malt-led and well-bal­anced; that’s what the kids want!). More like­ly they’ll be on white cider, Smirnoff Ice or that tequi­la-flavoured beer or sum­mat.

      As it is, there’s no evi­dence to say (a) chil­dren are being tar­get­ed, or (b) they are being enticed by the brand­ing. And again, who aged 14 or 15 is going to find a ted­dy bear appeal­ing?!

  3. Yeah, I’d also see this as a) a bit daft and b) a bit con­cern­ing.

    Looks like a soft drink” is a handy short­hand that takes up less space than a dis­ser­ta­tion on post­mod­ern design idioms that takes in under­ground comics, graf­fi­ti, rave fly­ers and so on, but if you actu­al­ly look at soft drink cans (includ­ing Sunkist, as ref­er­enced in the orig­i­nal com­plaint) then not many of them actu­al­ly look much like Cwtch.

    In prac­tice, it feels like the real prob­lem with it is that it’s not either faux-Vic­to­ri­ana or clas­sic retro-mod­ernism and those are the visu­al styles that most peo­ple asso­ciate with beer. The fact that there’s a (one-eyed, hood­ie-wear­ing) “ted­dy” on the can might be the clinch­er for this par­tic­u­lar com­plaint to be upheld, but if I was doing design work for small-to-medi­um brew­eries and did­n’t want to stick to the small range of accept­ed styles then I’d be quite wor­ried by this deci­sion.

    1. looks like a soft drink”

      sin­gle, pri­ma­ry colours
      one, short, snap­py brand name, writ­ten ver­ti­cal­ly or diag­o­nal­ly in large ital­ic text, with very lit­tle oth­er text vis­i­ble
      images sug­ges­tive of water, the sun and cit­rus fruit

      Is this a descrip­tion of tiny rebel cwtch can design?

  4. Again, Beaver­town seem to be fine, so it’s not as if this fun­da­men­tal­ly shifts the front line or any­thing.

    This is prod­uct pack­ag­ing, not art, and a good design­er will find ways to express all the nec­es­sary atti­tude with­in the bound­aries. Port­man explic­it­ly says in its judge­ment:

    The Pan­el began by recog­nis­ing that the com­pa­ny was try­ing to be inno­v­a­tive with regard to pack­ag­ing size and design and not­ed that the busi­ness had grown rapid­ly over a short space of time. The Pan­el did not want to sti­fle cre­ativ­i­ty in this area.”

    Their par­tic­u­lar prob­lem here is the com­bo of (a) bright colours (b) 330ml can and © rebel­lious teenage imagery. Pick any two of those three and, if I’m read­ing it right, they’d have been fine!

  5. From where I’m sit­ting (brew­ery office) PG’s rul­ing seems fair­ly con­sid­ered and rea­son­able – not that I nec­es­sar­i­ly agree with it. The gen­er­al response how­ev­er, seems over­wrought and faint­ly hys­ter­i­cal.

  6. I’m with you on this. This part of the code isn’t about nan­ny-stat­ing and adult drinkers mak­ing deci­sions but whether an adult prod­uct can con­ceiv­ably be con­fused as indi­rect­ly or direct­ly appeal­ing to chil­dren. In this instance, the addi­tion of all things togeth­er has meant that there is an indi­rect appeal: unfor­tu­nate­ly hav­ing a ted­dy bear on your label will always put the mar­keter on the back foot when it comes to this par­tic­u­lar part of the code.

  7. All fine, except

    Craft beer cans in gen­er­al, and this one in par­tic­u­lar, looks noth­ing like a soft drinks can.

    Soft drinks cans are not sup­posed to be explic­it­ly mar­ket­ed at chil­dren any­way, and there noth­ing about their design to sug­gest they are.

    There is noth­ing about this can, or indeed any craft beer can I can think of, that sug­gests it is mar­ket­ed at teenagers. It con­tains no ref­er­ence to things that teenagers are inter­est­ed in, like foot­ball teams, real­i­ty tv celebri­ties and pop stars.

    If you think teenagers like ted­dy bears, you need your head test­ing.

    1. The notes on the judge­ment set it all out quite sen­si­bly:

      1. They did­n’t reck­on it would actu­al­ly be mis­tak­en for a soft drinks can.
      2. But they did think the *com­bi­na­tion* of (a) bright colours; (b) images of ‘teenage rebel­lion’ (graf­fi­ti, hood­ies); and © the 330ml soft-drink-sized can might make it appeal­ing to under 18s.

      You don’t have to agree with the judge­ment but it was a *judge­ment*, not a knee-jerk, and does­n’t seem to set the bar out­ra­geous­ly low.

      We got the impres­sion that if any one of those ele­ments had been slight­ly changed (e.g. it had been in a 440ml can, or the ted­dy was­n’t wear­ing a hoody) then it could eas­i­ly have gone the oth­er way.

  8. for once I agree total­ly with Py 🙂 Im look­ing for­ward to Tiny Rebels response as I dont feel they agree with the Port­man groups state­ments and will com­ply only as I sus­pect super­mar­ket list­ings require it.

    I would say this though if you think a tiny rebel bear in any­way appeals to kids, where are all the com­plaints about jol­ly old Father Christ­mas labelled beers,that some close­ly match a well known soft­drink made in Atlanta christ­mas edi­tions ? Or hap­py elves,rudolph the red nose rein­deer, pen­guins, Anchor Ale even puts a Christ­mas tree on their label, all appear­ing on all man­ner of christ­mas themed alco­hol drinks…anyone can be a con­cerned mem­ber of the pub­lic.

    Tiny Rebel should just add a sticky label across the bear that says CAMRA Cham­pi­on beer 2015.

    1. where are all the com­plaints about jol­ly old Father Christ­mas labelled beers”

      That’s a good ques­tion. If some­one did com­plain about that, Port­man would be oblig­ed to inves­ti­gate. But, again, they don’t go look­ing for things to inves­ti­gate – com­plaints come to them, which trig­gers the process. They did uphold a com­plaint against a Hal­loween themed WKD pro­mo­tion part­ly on the basis that Hal­loween is a child-focused event so might well uphold some­thing sim­i­lar in re: Christ­mas.

      What is strik­ing, look­ing at the list of Port­man judge­ments, is how rarely any­one can appar­ent­ly be both­ered to com­plain about any­thing. It’s a few per year rather than con­stant fran­tic activ­i­ty. That’s part­ly because the indus­try has got good at head­ing off com­plaints and part­ly, I’m sure, because com­plain­ing requires some effort.

  9. The Port­man Group is a front for big beer com­pa­nies who want to stiffle the cre­ativ­i­ty of small brew­ers. It has noth­ing to do with adver­tis­ing appeal­ing to the young, and more to do with big drinks com­pa­nies try­ing to hold on to their mar­ket.

    1. Tony – there might well be a con­flict of inter­est inher­ent in the way Port­man is fund­ed but, hon­est­ly, we can’t see any evi­dence of them favour­ing big pro­duc­ers over lit­tle in terms of the way the judge­ments go.

      Small pro­duc­ers might be more vul­ner­a­ble because, as you sug­gest, they tend to be a bit loos­er in their cre­ative approach and don’t have teams of lawyers and mar­ket­ing peo­ple to crawl over every detail but, actu­al­ly, hard­ly any craft brew­ers have been inves­ti­gat­ed by Port­man. We sus­pect that’s prob­a­bly because big pro­duc­ers are seen as exploita­tive bad­dies and so draw the atten­tion of cam­paign­ers where­as indie brew­ers most­ly fly under the radar.

      Of those small brew­ers that have been inves­ti­gat­ed, the judge­ments basi­cal­ly seem fair to us, e.g. against a beer called Psy­cho that adver­tised itself with the copy “call­ing all psy­chos… why not let your inner madman/woman take a look”.

  10. They did uphold a com­plaint against a Hal­loween themed WKD pro­mo­tion part­ly on the basis that Hal­loween is a child-focused event”

    So we can expect Hob­gob­lin’s annu­al Hal­lowe’en pro­mo­tion, and Greene King’s recent “Old Spooky Hen” Hal­lowe’en bot­tle labels, to be ruled against?

    It IS nan­ny-state non­sense, and it isn’t hys­ter­i­cal to say so.

    1. Yes, if some­one can be both­ered to make a com­plaint against them, and espe­cial­ly if they involve a plas­tic caul­dron!

      (I feel I’m repeat­ing myself a bit here…)

      1. The point is, it’s mild, vol­un­tary nan­ny state non­sense to avoid heavy, inflex­i­ble invol­un­tary nan­ny state non­sense.

        There’s a ques­tion over whether Port­man equates to the alco­hol indus­try pulling a con trick on the anti-alco­hol lob­by, or the anti-alco­hol lob­by trick­ing the alco­hol indus­try into nob­bling itself. So far, we reck­on the alco­hol indus­try is com­ing out on top in this arrange­ment.

  11. When Port­man Group found against Dead Pony Club in 2014 on two counts, Brew­Dog mere­ly pro­duced a slight­ly more long-wind­ed ver­sion of the Arkell v. Press­dram response on their web­site. Accord­ing to Port­man Group’s Com­plaint Deci­sions case files, they are still, three years lat­er, wait­ing for a for­mal response and indi­ca­tion of action from Brew­Dog. Yet Dead Pony Club remains on sale at the likes of sig­na­to­ries Tesco.

    So won­der­ing: did Brew­Dog make its pub­lic response know­ing that “up yours” atti­tude would appeal much­ly to many in its cus­tomer base; but then very qui­et­ly make the changes behind the scenes. Or is Brew­Dog a big pop­u­lar enough sell­er that the Tescos of this world sim­ply nev­er got round to the require­ment that they’re sup­posed to pull the prod­uct off the shelf?

  12. The Port­man code is pub­licly avail­able. If you want­ed to, you could have a read of it *before* sign­ing off a can design. If you’re both­ered about sell­ing into the big super­mar­kets, that is. I believe it’s what you’d call due dili­gence.

    1. Think one would have to do more than read the code to know what is and is not going to be accept­able. The two claus­es they were found in breach of mere­ly say:
      (f) encour­age ille­gal, irre­spon­si­ble or immod­er­ate con­sump­tion, such as drink-dri­ving, binge-drink­ing or drunk­en­ness;
      (h) have a par­tic­u­lar appeal to under-18s
      On (f) they were in breach because “the com­bi­na­tion of the “Tiny Rebel” logo and the dishev­elled bear placed so promi­nent­ly on the pack­ag­ing indi­rect­ly encour­aged immod­er­ate con­sump­tion”. Er, right?
      The rul­ing on (h) too long to quote, but involves bears, hood­ies, colours, pat­terns etc.

      The code is no more than a sequence of 10 very broad brush rules, entire­ly open to inter­pre­ta­tion. Look­ing at the can that was found in breach, and the one that is now accept­able, who would real­ly know in advance which the pan­el would judge ok and which not on the basis of the (lack of) detail in the rules?
      There is how­ev­er a sep­a­rate Advi­so­ry Ser­vice, which will run an eye over designs etc., and brew­ers might be well advised to make more use of that than one sus­pects they cur­rent­ly do, if feel their prod­uct might the push­ing at bound­aries. (Although it is stat­ed that just because the Advi­so­ry Ser­vice ‘pass­es’ it does­n’t mean the pan­el won’t take an entire­ly dif­fer­ent view if a com­plaint is received.)

      1. Yes, if brew­ers feel they might be ven­tur­ing into “edgy” ter­ri­to­ry it would make sense to run their ideas past the Advi­so­ry Ser­vice first. Clear­ly, any­one who knows they are stretch­ing the bound­aries won’t do this, but I get the impres­sion that Tiny Rebel have been entire­ly sin­cere and were some­what tak­en aback at receiv­ing a com­plaint.

      2. No, but seri­ous­ly, the advi­so­ry ser­vice is detailed in the code:
        “6. Advi­so­ry Ser­vice”

        Cheers.

  13. Ses­sion strength red ale in small cans encour­ages over consumption?spray can art is a teenage thing? The brew­ery name is defi­nat­ly a bad thing. Port­man seem to be imply­ing a lot of rot but tr clear­ly don’t have resources for an extend­ed fight. Luck­i­ly the deci­sion empha­sised the com­bi­na­tion and jux­ta­po­si­tion of fac­tors and mov­ing the bear to the back of the can seems to be doing enough. Worth note that this blog illus­trat­ed with pump clip not actu­al can design (ok they’re very sim­i­lar) no evi­dence that tr were look­ing for trou­ble. Inter­est­ing to note new can replaces bear with men­tion of cham­pi­on beer of Britain award (seem­ing­ly no one would imag­ine cam­ra hav­ing youth appeal). Per­son­al­ly I sus­pect can is cool enough to appeal to 17 year old kids. Four cans of tiny rebel look way cool­er than four car­ling but come in small­er cans cost­ing more. Maybe if super­mar­kets were sell­ing these in the fridges at the entrance next to coke then Port­man may have a point.

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