Remember those bygone days of, say, about three weeks ago when we addressed the ongoing issue of sexism in beer? And remember how we concluded that one of the best ways for a brewery to champion diversity was to actively engage with and participate in communities that have been historically sidelined by the beer world?
To highlight that point, it should also be said that you have to be thoughtful about engagement because sometimes, no matter how good your intention is, it can backfire. It’s a lesson that Taylor Swift is currently learning and, perhaps, one that Aberdeen’s BrewDog has just learned after it lost a discrimination case this week.
In March of last year the brewery announced the launch of Pink IPA, a satirically and intentionally stereotypical pink repackaging of its otherwise blue-branded flagship Punk IPA. Launched on International Women’s Day and made available for a month, the “beer for girls” was available to those who identify as women for one-fifth less of the price of Punk IPA, which was sold alongside it.
The idea behind the campaign was laudable, meant to highlight the 18.1 percent average gender pay gap between men and women in the UK. In addition, 20 percent of the proceeds from both of the beers would be donated to charities and initiatives promoting gender equality.
While many praised BrewDog’s rather tongue-in-cheek way of tackling a very serious problem, it wasn’t without its critics. Particularly since BrewDog had disclosed a 2.8 percent median wage discrepancy that favored men in 2017-2018 (which has since been reversed), it appeared as though the brewery’s stance was both hypocritical and just another marketing ploy. Other critics asserted that the message behind the stunt was too subtle, and that the need for BrewDog’s blog post explaining the idea may have been an indication that someone walking in off the street, with no appreciation for the subtle yet seemingly obvious message, would see such a tactic as discriminatory.
That someone turned out to be Dr. Thomas Bower, a 27-year-old software engineer from Cardiff. After stepping into the BrewDog Cardiff location, Bower attempted to purchase the discounted Pink IPA and was refused it on the grounds that he initially identified as male.
"After a bit of a back and forth with me protesting this, I felt forced to identify as female and was then able to get the drink for £4,” Bower told Wales Online. He accused the company of discrimination, and was then told the reasoning behind the campaign. Not satisfied, he gave BrewDog the chance to settle the matter privately or go to court. The brewery chose not to settle and Bower took it to small claims court for discrimination and breach of the 2010 Equality Act, saying he would drop his claim if BrewDog publicly apologized for discriminating against him. BrewDog did not do that and the case went on, with Bower representing himself.
No matter the intention, choosing to tackle a serious issue with satire can lead to blowback.”
In the end, District Judge Phillips sided with Bower, and awarded the engineer £1,000. After accounting for his court costs, Bower donated the money between two charities, Young Women's Trust, which helps women struggling to live on low or no pay to get into work that is right for them and the Campaign Against Living Miserably (CALM), which is aimed at bringing the suicide rate down among young men.
Firstly, I’d argue that Bower was operating under extremely bad faith:, having been made aware of the cause,—a premise with which he ostensibly agrees —and still fighting against it because, perhaps, the brewery addressed his male privilege in an unsuitable way. There’s also the added shittiness that, in lying about his gender in order to get a slight discount on a beer, Bower trivialized trans and nonbinary people, many of whom have to defend their gender identity on a daily basis.
Despite winning the case, he’s not coming out of this looking good, particularly online.
But the ordeal does have an upside: It highlights that when it comes to breaking down issues like gender equality, a water hose can often work better than a bucket.
No matter the intention, choosing to tackle a serious issue with satire can lead to blowback. As the culture wars rage on, activism through irony may not be enough, especially when there are people who delight in twisting purportedly well-intentioned initiatives to their own ends. While such a thing is heartbreakingly regrettable, it’s something to take into account when planning out a charitable initiative.
The important thing, however, is the next step. You can give up and never try again, keep doing what you were doing, and risk making the same mistakes. Or you can get up, figure out the holes in your plan, and work on something better and stronger that can create lasting change in a culture that desperately needs it.
Top photo courtesy of BrewDog.