Nearly 3,500 miles from its Frederick facility, Flying Dog Brewery finds itself entangled in a marketing controversy.
The Portman Group, a trade organization in the United Kingdom that aims to promote responsible alcohol consumption, released a public assessment on Friday that the packaging for Flying Dog’s Easy IPA could encourage excessive drinking. The “retailer alert bulletin” concludes by asking U.K. stores to not carry the beer.
“The majority of the key retailers here agree to abide by decisions issued by the independent complaints panel and as such will take the item [off] the shelf,” said a Portman Group spokeswoman in an email.
Flying Dog CEO Jim Caruso believes this ruling — though not mandated by U.K. law — will “virtually eliminate” Easy IPA from U.K. stores because of the agency’s influence. (The Portman Group “is funded by eight member companies who represent every sector of drinks production and collectively account for more than half the U.K. alcohol market,” according to the group’s website. Member companies include conglomerates such as Diageo, AB InBev and Molson Coors.)
The artwork, which was drawn by Welsh artist Ralph Steadman, famous for his collaborations with Hunter S. Thompson, features an upright pig-like character with one foot on the ground and the other in the air, while the pig’s arms are outstretched to the sides.
The Portman Group said, because there’s a line under the pig’s feet and the character’s eyelids and nose were red, the illustration “looked akin to someone balancing along a line to demonstrate sobriety,” which “could be seen as encouraging drunkenness.”
Flying Dog, which has been sold in the U.K. for approximately 15 years, vehemently rejects this reading of the packaging.
“I think it’s just a plain, flat-out insult to every British adult to suggest that Steadman art — they can’t handle it. If they see this Steadman art, they’re going to lapse into drunken irresponsible behavior,” Caruso said. “It’s bulls---.”
Caruso said the company does not give Steadman, who creates all of the art for its beers, any creative directives for its products. No element of the packaging of Easy IPA — which has been sold in the U.K. for a few years — suggests or promotes irresponsible drinking, he said.
“We like characters as opposed to landscapes. That’s it,” Caruso said. “They’ve layered some meaning on this that is only in their head, in my opinion.”
George Haley, a professor of marketing and international business at the University of New Haven, said he was not surprised the Flying Dog packaging has caused a stir in the U.K., a region that has worked to decrease youth drinking in recent years.
But he does not expect the Portman Group’s bulletin to lead retailers to abandon Easy IPA or Flying Dog en masse, especially if it’s a consistent seller. Generally, stores are not worried about upsetting the Portman Group, he said.
“The retailers are going to go with what makes them profits,” Haley said. “Some of them, it might come off, but not the bulk of them.”
Originally, a U.K. resident submitted a complaint to the Portman Group over what the consumer perceived as packaging made to appeal to kids.
“I feel that the packaging of this beer, appeals to persons under the age of 18. When offered a drink from a friends [sic] fridge I immediately presumed that this was a soft drink,” reads the complaint summary on the Portman Group’s website.
The Portman Group ultimately rejected this interpretation, but in its research, found the “inebriated-looking creature balancing on one leg presented as an indication of drunkenness,” according to its decision.
The reading makes no sense, said Caruso, who pointed out Easy IPA is a relatively low-alcohol beer at 4.7 percent ABV.
“I’m scratching my head going, ‘Seriously?’” he said. “If it’s a field sobriety test, wouldn't it be a warning not to drink so much?”
The U.S. has a “more laissez faire approach in promotion and advertising” compared to the U.K., Haley said.
“They are much more sensitive to anything that might cause controversy,” he said.
Flying Dog is no stranger to controversy over its marketing. In 2009, the Michigan Liquor Control Commission rejected the brand’s attempt to register the Raging Bitch Belgian-style IPA beer label in the state because it was deemed “detrimental to the health, safety or welfare of the general public.”
In 2011, the commission reversed its decision. The brewery, in turn, sued the commission, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit ruled in favor of Flying Dog. The $40,000 awarded to the brewery for lost sales was used in 2016 to create the 1st Amendment Society, Flying Dog’s nonprofit organization that advocates against censorship.
Caruso said he will have a discussion with Flying Dog’s U.K. distributor, James Clay, about how best to proceed, and whether or not Flying Dog will ship Easy IPA to the U.K. in the future.
When asked why he believed the Portman Group made the decision, Caruso said he doesn’t speculate on motives.
“I can say that it stretches my imagination. I can’t believe that they would make the conclusion that this label in any way is a danger and causes any public safety or health issues,” he said. “If they are, they’re the silliest group of people I’ve ever heard.”