July 6, 2011

On Clown Shoes, Sperm Label Art, and Selective Outrage

So much of the craft beer punditocracy became embroiled yesterday in a discussion about label art. Specifically, sex and sexism in label art. Generally, a reader of this blog might think I would I find that a positive thing, and in some sense I do. The problem, however, was that the discussion was started not as a serious debate over what is appropriate, but as what looks a lot like a personal vendetta by Candice Alström, one of the founding family of Beer Advocate and its renowned message board, against Clown Shoes Brewing Co.

She started a post that she was "done" with Clown Shoes, because she found the label art sexist and crude. Strangely, she pointed to a new label for a beer called the Lubrication. Take a look:
Okay, here's some of what Alström said:

Granted I didn’t find this one nearly as bad as Tramp Stamp and Brown Angel. But on Twitter, the first thing people pointed out about it was the “dong.” Of course the title of the beer is gross with that in mind. And with this Clownshoes being the tacky brand that they are, I have no doubt that it is all about the dong. 
I don’t get it. I don’t get why they have to go there to sell beer. We don’t need this kind of crap. Of course he can do whatever he wants, and I ask no one to agree with me if they don’t see my point of view here. I just don’t think we need to go there to sell beer. If these beers were any good, he wouldn’t need to go there to try and sell it. They are average at best and these dumb labels do nothing to help/change that.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, you may recall that Clown Shoes' art, by Stacey George (a woman), won the poll on this site for the best art of last year, and I too find it excellent. So, unlike Alström, I do not come to their art thinking of crudeness and sex. But, even if I look for it, I don't really see it here.

Stacey George sent me the original artwork, an homage to Ed Ruscha's gas station pieces:

For those of you unfamiliar with Ruscha, here's a piece of his:
Right, so you see what the artist is doing. There's a retro-futurism thing going on with the robot, and lubrication will obviously call sex to mind for some (though the label text assures us that it's more about the beer's function as a social lubricant). As for Alström's contention that the gas line is positioned to be a penis... I mean, I guess if you want it to be. George swears it's not supposed to be. But really, with everything going on on beer labels, this is what we choose to pick on?

You want to know what type of label art I find offensive?
That is lazy, chauvinist and insulting to the audience. It's not that I don't see how some could look at some of George's labels and see sexualized women; but to pick on a talented woman artist for a gas can and a robot when we've got a million Lil' Lady's Horny Devil Cleavage Ale out there suggests to me that Alström, rather than a legit argument to make, simply has a bone to pick with Clown Shoes.

Fortunately, the commenters on BA showed some sanity in their complaints, arguing that a non-Alström who had posted the same thread would have had it deleted instantly. The post was locked after 325 comments with a somewhat opaque last word by Jason Alström. If you want, there are links to everything (including Clown Shoes owner Gregg Berman's sarcastic response), as well as a very intelligent comments conversation happening over at Beerpulse. Also, George has written an eloquent response on her blog, pointing out that offensiveness is entirely subjective, that the Brown Angel art was partly inspired by Do The Right Thing, and that the German for "tramp stamp" translates roughly to "ass antlers."

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I think there are some great debates to be had over whether and what art - especially that sexualizing women - is tasteful on craft beer labels. Hell, who would love that debate more than I? But the journalist and beer lover in me also feels like, if one has a beef with a brewery, they should just say so, rather than deciding to hide behind some faux-critical stance. And to use one's message board for a purpose that one would not allow to others is just hypocrisy (a vice which Larry Flynt calls the "greatest threat to democracy" in my friend's interview. Yes, that was a plug).

Particularly strange, to me, is that this comes up around the same time as the release of one of the most bold (and potentially off-putting) labels I've ever seen in craft beer:
Now, the B and W Bros have already gone to town on this label, by the very creative folks at Smuttynose. But this is just a reminder that when people get worked up over a robot (or, earlier, a woman in pleasure), that's a good sign there's a personal thing going on. If we're really concerned about a beer projecting an image of something one might not find appealing... there's sperm on this label, and in case that wasn't disturbing enough, the sperm have heads of real people.
What is a Homunculus? There are several different definitions that come from psychology, alchemy, and preformation. The word itself is Latin for, “little human.” As you can see from the label art, we were captivated by the preformationist usage of the term. The name was discovered during a brainstorming session. We didn’t want to call the scaled up brew by its original name, so out came the thesaurus. We saw “homunculus” was a synonym for “gnome” and the rest, as they say, was history.
I should note that I am not as put off by this label as many, partly since I (obviously) view the label art as a piece of branding and design that may relate to the beer, but doesn't necessarily suggest the beer's flavor. I think it's fun, goofy, and the faces make it clear it's a joke. Plus, it's Smuttynose... they do some crazy label art.

But to argue over whether a gas pump may or may not suggest a male organ, when we've got a label with sperm on it, or to suggest the name "Lubrication" alone is "gross"... well, I'd say that goes beyond selective outrage. We've got beers called Yellow Snow and Golden Shower. I think everyone understands what ingredients aren't in those.

Still, from a marketing standpoint, I think these bold gestures are probably best reserved for products that appeal to a core craft beer crowd. They're more likely to be interested in the product inside the bottle and less offended or made queasy by a label. For the Homunculus, a big beers series offering, that's obviously  the case, and for Clown Shoes, that appears to be their target market to begin with.


  1. I thought the robot reference in "Lubrication" was to that of oil, much like Oskar Blue's "Ten Fidy." Go figure. While these labels do skirt dangerously close to the edge of bad taste, why not also be concerned by the copious amounts of scantily clad women that sell macro brews? I've seen more women wearing Budweiser gear (albeit very little of it) than any other swimwear EVER. More recently the Miller Lite-Guards have been featured prominently on TV ads. No one seems to be hot and bothered about them, yet they are hardly in the shadows. Where is this line drawn? Or was it merely an article focusing on craft beer because the site does also as a whole?

  2. I do agree that Alst m can be unnecessarily brash and rude with her comments (I mean, why the need to call Clown Shoes' beers "average at best" and a "tacky brand") and also completely hypocritical (i.e, the fact that BA often deletes posts from other users that are written in a similar tone).

    However, as a woman, I can understand how she'd feel a bit offended / put-off by that label.

    There is a more important point here though that I think should be discussed: breweries capitalizing on drama (rather than just making really good beer!) in order to reap monetary & brand awareness gains. Now, I'm not about to accuse Clown Shoes of this. I have no way of knowing their motives. However, it is definitely within the realm of possibility. After seeing some reactions from people after releasing Tramp Stamp and Brown Angel, I'm sure they had an idea of what to expect when releasing Lubrication. Are we really expected to believe George's statement that the placement of the nozzle was not intentional?

    When breweries create this buzz and drama for themselves it definitely increases their brand awareness and may cause some consumers to purchase their product for that reason (especially people less familiar with craft beer). Luckily the quality of Clown Shoes' beers themselves have a reputation to back the hype. But some breweries don't, and we end up with people buying crap beer just for the hype.

  3. Well put. When I first read the post I was immediately confused because it just didn't add up. You put it nicely by saying it's a "faux-critical stance". The reasoning behind Brown Angel doesn't add up and the so called final straw of the robot wasn't something she felt herself but just read about in Twitter. Then you have comments that imply it's about the industry and not personal yet there is no one else being thrown under the bus but CS. If this were for the greater good of the industry then Candice would be opening it up to other labels instead of sticking to just CS and only CS.

    Her defense seems to be that she is just like every user in BA and she is entitled to her opinion. She even laughs at the notion that she has any influence as a moderator or wife to the co-owner of BA. If she really believes that then it's frightening. A local news truck does a live spot on CS because of someone who has no influence? In her blog she discussed how she was once suspended and nearly lost her account at BA due to forum fighting, but was forgiven and let back in by her husband. I'm not sure many regular users can say that. Even worse, would the brothers hire someone as a moderator who was once banned due to violations? I have no account in the BA forums but I can tell that she doesn't have a strong ability to be unbiased or unfair so when she says her post was perfectly within the rules I certainly have some doubts.

    Finally, an over hyped label isn't going to make a brewer rich. A catchy label only works once, after that it's up to the taste. A brewer can't stay in business just on label.