October 23, 2010

The Witch's Wit Label Controversy: What Should Lost Abbey Do?

A story came to my attention today via my friend Conrad, who sent me the link to this New York Times story on Lost Abbey's label art for their Witch's Wit Ale.

Before you read (if you intend to), here's the art, first on a bottle:
And now larger, on a t-shirt:
Okay, got it?

The story is this: Beer shopper Vicki Noble sees the bottle, is horrified that it is an image of a woman being burned at the stake, and mobilizes the massive power of social networks to draw attention to the fact that she finds this offensive.
Ms. Noble went home and wrote to her e-mail list. “Can we stop this brewer from their hate imagery?” read the subject line, in all capitals. “Can you imagine them showing a black person being lynched or a Jewish person going to the oven?” she wrote. “Such images are simply not tolerated in our society anymore (thank the Goddess) and this one should not be, either.”
This catches on within the pagan community (one to which I happen to be sympathetic and in which I have some friends, in case you're wondering about my biases). They get to Tomme Arthur, head of Lost Abbey, and one of the co-founders, Vince Marsaglia. As you may imagine, some of the complaints are more constructive than others:
“We have been accused of inspiring violence against women, and we have been compared to the violence in Darfur,” said Sage Osterfeld, a spokesman for Port Brewing. “It has run the gamut from people saying politely, ‘This is offensive to pagans,’ to people saying we are responsible for all that is wrong in the world.”
As you might imagine, the impetus behind the label was not to encourage people to burn each other, or to exacerbate the situation is the Sudan. Rather:
And far from being an attack on women, Mr. Osterfeld said, Witch’s Wit is in a line of Catholic-themed beers, like Inferno Ale and Judgment Day, conceived in the spirit of gentle satire by Tomme Arthur, another of the brewery’s owners. Mr. Arthur says he is “a recovering Catholic.”
Just to make sure you get the irony: The label was designed as a poke at the Catholic Church, and ended up offending pagans. In the design industry, we call that an "oops," which is basically what Lost Abbey said:

[Marsaglia] wrote that he was “totally in favor” of changing the label and that he and his co-workers had been “ignorantly unaware of the mistake” they had made... Mr. Marsaglia also wrote, contritely, that he and his colleagues “would really like to have some kind of contest for a great label.” Mr. Arthur said the board would meet after Halloween to determine exactly how to decide on that new label.
Okay, so now that you know the story, let's talk about the label.

First, all of Tomme Arthur's satire aside, I do want to make sure you're aware of the seriousness of the suffering caused by ignorance, because I frankly wasn't. One of my aforementioned pagan friends, Dave, in a quick discussion on Facebook, informed me that somewhere near 9 million women were killed for "witchcraft" (i.e. not being Catholic) in the various reactionary movements of the middle ages [Ed. note: The actual number may be much lower and around 50,000; see comments section below]. And, of course, it's not just ancient history (we've all seen Arthur Miller's "The Crucible"). So people did die, horrifically, because of prejudice.

Noble's analogy, then, is fair in that respect; we would not have label art of a lynching be considered in good taste (remember the problems Short's Brewing had when a rendering made "Hangin' Fred" label look a little tan). And, as a Jew, I think I can safely say that a label for the Birkenau Rauchbier would not go over well.

But those are a little more recent than the inquisition. And witches have a less sacred place in our culture than those other tragedies. In a week, lots of people will be dressed up as sexy witches for Halloween, and we don't think of that as the same as dressing up as a Holocaust or lynching victim. Monty Python satirized burning witches in Holy Grail, and a house falls on a witch at the beginning of The Wizard of Oz, neither of which would have been tolerated if it was a burning cross, for example.

Okay, fine, but this label is actually showing someone burning, not a coed in her underwear and a pointy hat. That's got to be over the line, right?

I would say that, while I understand why Lost Abbey will change the label art (which is artistically excellent as usual, by the way, calling to mind Edvard Munch), I wish they wouldn't.

Art is supposed to make you feel something, and sometimes what it makes you feel is revulsion. That's the sign of effective work. A few years ago, I had the opportunity to see Without Sanctuary, an art exhibit of lynching photos at the Warhol Museum. It was horrifying and repulsive and fascinating and brilliant. It was what art is supposed to be about. Even if this label started out as fun, clearly it has the power to evoke emotion and thought. And if I didn't believe a beer label was a suitable place to find art, I wouldn't be writing this blog.

I think Lost Abbey should have listened to the criticism, and then reached out to Noble and others and asked them to write a few paragraphs for the back and side label panels about all of the harm that was caused by witch burnings. Take the label and treat it as art. Tell people that if they're weirded out by the label, they should think about all the people who actually died because we allowed ignorance to dictate our policies once upon a time. Explain why it's offensive. Coordinate with museum in Salem for a fundraiser. Deliver a little knowledge to your market, along with delicious beer. Doing a good thing is cool, and you'll get enough PR exposure to make it worth your while.

Yes, I went to business school, and I understand that Lost Abbey has to sell beer, which might not be helped by talk of burning people. I get it. I also think that the craft beer crowd is generally more socially aware, and anyone springing for a $10 bottle of this probably is willing to think a little bit.

Am I glad that Lost Abbey is sensitive to concerns? Of course, and as I said I think it's fine and I'm anxious to see whatever label comes out to replace it. I know, I'm asking a lot for a thing that tells you about the coriander and orange peel flavors and alcohol by volume. But this label got me to learn more about how millions died for our ignorance in the past, and there aren't that many beer bottles that inspire someone to do that. It's hard for me not to feel a little sad that it won't be causing others to do the same.

This is one of those issues where I really would value some other points of view, so please leave a comment if you've got any thoughts on this.


  1. Art is art, but this is marketing. They could see this as an opportunity to gain market share and new "evangelist" customers with lifetime loyalty--the holy grail for a small business like this. If they keep the label, it will be a mistake.

  2. Based on what I've seen in the NYT and on other beer blogs, many of the pagans seem to be grossly misinformed about their own religious history. They keep quoting the number of women burned as witches at 8 million. The actual number is somewhere between 50k and 100k over two centuries. http://departments.kings.edu/womens_history/witch/werror.html#Millions

  3. "I think Lost Abbey should have listened to the criticism, and then reached out to Noble and others and asked them to write a few paragraphs for the back and side label panels about all of the harm that was caused by witch burnings. Take the label and treat it as art. Tell people that if they're weirded out by the label, they should think about all the people who actually died because we allowed ignorance to dictate our policies once upon a time. Explain why it's offensive."

    I think the difference between art in museum, and art on a beer label, is when it is in a museum, it is meant to pondered, analyzed, and generate discusssion. On a beer label, it is intended to grab that customer's attention in under a second so that's the bottle they buy. I realize craft beer speaks to a more sophisticated consumer who will appreciate the art work more. But craft beer is a business, and I'm afraid the best bottle shops are not going to turn into art museums.

  4. Both Anonymous A and Derrick make excellent points about the difference between package design/marketing and what we usually consider high art.

    I suppose my thought was that this label did, in fact, do the attention-getting part of the job, and did so without using various pointy-hat tropes. So it's already doing the marketing part. Associating products with a cause is often done in package design (think pink buckets of KFC or the (Red) campaign), and there appears to be a cause here. Such associations are mutually beneficial because they raise awareness for the cause and are excellent PR. For a business like Lost Abbey, which is national but not rich enough to advertise on mass market scale, such an arrangement might be a great fit.

    Derrick's quite right: bottle shops will not turn into art museums, and I don't want them to. But the art in bottle shops is clearly capable of affecting us, whether to change what beer we buy or to illustrate flavor for us or to offend our sensibilities. As long as it has that power, I think I'm saying, why not use it for good?

    All that said, I totally understand that I might just be asking too much from a beer label.

  5. On Anonymous B's point about statistics:

    Wikipedia says "The classical period of witchhunts in Europe and North America falls into the Early Modern period or about 1480 to 1700, spanning the upheavals of the Reformation and the Thirty Years' War, resulting in an estimated 40,000 to 100,000 executions".

    The counter-argument, of course, is that such figures are underreported and it doesn't count, for example, everyone who killed themselves to avoid burning or who was killed in some other non-burning way.

    For example, the Spanish Inquisition "processed" 150,000 people during its relatively short time. The execution rate was low, but it's not like life was good for those who were merely imprisoned or expelled.

    I agree that 9 million is too high; that would have been a significant chunk of Europe. More importantly, there is no scholarly evidence of which I am aware for such a number, and I'm sorry for repeating it without such evidence (if I'm missing something, please post it).

    But the actual number seems to me to not affect Lost Abbey's decision much. Lots of people died for a long time, and it was allowed to happen because we tolerated ignorance. In Sub-Saharan Africa, people still get hunted and killed for "witchcraft." Surely we can all get behind the idea that that's a bad thing.

  6. Hey, Greg, I found you over at the Beer & Whiskey Brothers' blog. Seriously, your take on this is not only balanced but you actually provide sensible solutions.

    Also, I'm glad I found your blog. It's a really good read. I'm looking forward to exploring your past posts. Thanks!

  7. Thanks!

    For those reading, Zac is referring to the commentversation going on at beerandwhiskeybros.com

    Check it out to see some of the very thoughtful comments by Zac and others.

  8. While the picture itself is in poor taste, by itself i didn't find it offensive. I also didn't find it (as a few commenters on the brewery's blog did) anti-pagan or anti-witch. After all, most of those accused and executed for witchcraft in the middle ages actually weren't witches, they were just not catholic enough.

    One thing that hasn't been mentioned much though is the label on the back of the bottle. Apparently each label in this series has a story to go with it printed on the back of the bottle. The one accompanying this is rather sickening to read. Here's a link to the brewery's page for the beer:


    The "story" is at the bottom of the page. From their blog, it seems to be intended as satire. But it leaves a bad taste in my mouth and comes across as more than slightly insulting to this witch.

  9. I object to Lost Abbey's marketing on a couple of levels. As a professional marketer myself, if you have to explain the meaning of your marketing, well then you have pretty crappy marketing. Primary product labeling is supposed to grab a customer and immediately convey your product's/company's look/feel/concept. So what does sticking the image of a young woman being burned at the stake with a pretty realistic look of horror on her face say about your product and/or company? It's pretty generally understood that using violent negative imagery on your products isn't a very good way to sell your products.

    On a conceptual basis, society still has a lot of issues with vilifying and persecuting those who are "different". The incident with the gay kid killing himself after his roommate shared the video of his private encounter with another guy on the internet comes to mind. The witch burnings were a prime example of persecution of those who are "different" Doesn't matter if they were actual witches or not. Advertising tends to glamorize the visual subjects used in marketing by making it somehow "cool". Take a look at what the commercials for Snickers did for Betty White's career. Glamorizing a historical image of persecution would reinforce on a subliminal level that somehow persecuting the different is cool.

    Overall, I'd say Lost Abbey needs to hire someone who actually knows something about marketing and not let a co-owner use their marketing as his means of personal therapy with his own issues with his former religious persuasion.

  10. Adman, thanks for your thoughts. It's not that I disagree with what you're saying about marketing, but I'm not sure it all applies to Lost Abbey. For one thing, Lost Abbey is one of the success stories of craft beer, so I think it's safe to say they know a little something about marketing within their field. Now, you're absolutely right that Tomme Arthur using his recovering Catholic satire art might not be a ticket to mainstream acceptance, but as I've written before, craft beer business is more about capacity than demand; he already sells out all the beer he makes. That's part of why label art for craft beer is somewhere between strict marketing design and art for me. And, for what it's worth, even if it's not what you or I would design, Lost Abbey's work I think does, as you say, convey the product's ideology, which is one of thoughtful and historic - if tongue-in-cheek - tradition.

    I totally agree with everything you say about persecuting the different. But the question is whether this label really does glorify that, or does it glamorize the witch, dying for others' ignorance? If Arthur is using the labels as "therapy," it's very unlikely he's trying to glamorize the church, right? Now, if that's unclear, as you point out, that's a marketing problem they should fix. But should we really be offended by what is at best a mistake of not being clear enough to a non-primary market (the label was out for three years before anyone raised a stink)?

    And that's really why I think the answer here is interpretation text. If the intent is clear, then there will be no mistake as to what the label is glamorizing (and in fact, there will be an educational component). The label must work well enough as a marketing vehicle for Lost Abbey's purposes, since it's sold beer and been noticed, but if it can mistaken as glorifying violence, that's an issue they should fix.

    Once again, thanks for your thoughts. There's a lot to talk about here, and your comments on marketing are dead-on and important to any debate over label art.

  11. So I just typed a really long response to this, which Google rejected, thanking you for your thoughts and pointing out that understanding marketing - and marketing within craft beer - is an important part of the debate. I have to go to work, so briefly:
    -Remember that craft breweries need niche, not mainstream, appeal, since they already sell all their beer. And I think Lost Abbey, a success in the industry, does know a little about marketing.
    -While you or I might not have designed it, I think Lost Abbey's art, in general, does what you suggest and conveys the product's thoughtful, historical and tongue-in-cheek tone.
    -I agree with everything you say about persecution of the different. But I don't think this label glorifies that; I think it glorifies, if anything, the witch who is dying for other peoples' ignorance. The fact that that isn't clear to everyone is indeed a marketing problem.
    -Which further leads me to believe that interpretation is the answer here. Lack of clarity to a non-primary audience (it was on the market for three years before anyone noticed) is not offensive to me. If they clear up the point of the label, the problem is fixed.

  12. Thanks for your responses guys. I do appreciate the difference of niche vs mainstream, however at some point most would like to get a bigger market share and jump from niche to mainstream. I still maintain that if your "intent" (joke, satire, witticism) isn't immediately recognizable as such without reading a lengthy explanation, its just not a good marketing approach. I have read the back label for the Witches Wit and even knowing that it's supposed to be "satire" it still reads disrespectful and fairly misogynistic to me. We can agree to disagree on that however.

    I wonder though. What would be the reaction in craft beer be if two women launched a microbrewery and produced, say "Castrato Cider" with the image of a man strapped down to a table with a look of horror on his face with women holding a knife above his groin and then a "satirical" backstory on the back label, in the same vein as the one on the Witches Wit bottle?

    First off craft beer is dominated by mostly men and I don't think many men would reach for a bottle with this depiction on the label and I have a feeling that despite the backstory being "satire" there might be a rather unflattering perception of the female owners for using such a label. So why doesn't that pendulum swing both ways?

    Since all this broke I've also noticed another somewhat disturbing trend of posts that I've seen on the intertubes from those who are defending this label and this phenomenon is now bothering me more than anything else. People are being reasonable here and on beerandwhiskeybros.com But by and large the greatest supporters of this label are supportive of it out of a belief that Wiccans are just wacky and should be disregarded or that just in general we shouldn't care about what others think. That we're too "PC". Its pretty much a general sentiment of disregard for those who are offended by something that they aren't.

    It's that disregard for "others" mentality that actually led to atrocities like historical witch burnings. We can to this day still find plenty of examples of how not caring about those who are different from us leads to some pretty horrific behaviors. Obviously we still have a problem with having respect for those who are different. By keeping this label, Lost Abbey will be furthering and promoting that sentiment and attitude. Is that what they really want to represent? Certainly they'll get some fans with an "in your face eff um" attitude however now we get into the realm of promoting social ills. This label seems to rapidly become a banner to rally around if you're against whats perceived as too much political correctness, a sense that we just shouldn't care about others...if they don't like it, too bad. That also leaves a bad taste in my mouth.

    Another reason why this didn't get noticed sooner is the fact that they don't distribute to a very wide area. They're noticed now though.

  13. Wow, seriously thanks to everyone who's chiming in on this. I'm working on a followup post that tries to bring everything together, so I'll keep my response comments short for the moment, but please keep it coming, and please know how wonderful it is to see this level of discussion; as Adman writes, we should not take it for granted.