“Sponsored content” isn’t easy to do well — the ethical considerations are very tricky indeed, and it’s often just all too plain to readers that an ad is an ad — but this piece on The Spinoff recently is a particularly clear example of how to do it badly. I’m definitely not saying it’s impossible, and I certainly am sympathetic to the economic need for it,1 but for this kind of advertiser-backed stuff to work and be palatable, it needs to be entirely clear who’s paying for it ― and it needs to be worthy of existence in the first place.2 This piece fails on both counts.
Firstly, it’s just incredibly shallow and banal. It doesn’t contain anything worth learning that you couldn’t get from a casual minute and a half on Wikipedia. It’s a passable-at-best version of the usual Beer 101 — “…a pure and balanced expression of just four simple, natural ingredients”, and that kind of thing — told by way of a smattering of dry and expository quotes attributed to two brewers. The site’s regular coverage of beer (and wine, and food) is of a much higher standard, gives the reader a lot more credit, and manages to be more lively than lecturing ― even when it’s done as part of other “partner content” deals. And, weirdly, this piece appears with the byline of their music editor (who also does regular wine reviews) when they have an actual beer writer on staff (who you absolutely should be reading).3
Secondly, it’s not abundantly clear from the piece just who is sponsoring it. At both the top and bottom of the article, it mentions that it’s made “in partnership with the Brewers Association”, but it doesn’t quite manage to say who that is. Now, you may know (as I do, nerd that I am) that they are the lobbying group for some the biggest breweries in the region ― Lion and D.B. (who, you might have noticed, employ the two brewers quoted in the article), plus a few of their counterparts in Australia4 ― but (I submit) most normal people aren’t familiar with them by name. Especially around this time of year, it’d be very easy to confuse them with the much-broader-based Brewers Guild, certainly. In contrast to every other “partner content” header I could find on the site and in apparent breach of their own rules about declarations of interest,5 clicking on their logo at the top of the article won’t help you either, instead of leading to anything informative about the B.A., it links to a campaign by the B.A.: “Beer The Beautiful Truth”, the very same thing that runs, beside the article, as an explicit ad. [Update: I wrote to their Partnerships Editor, and he agreed with my complaint about the link in the logo; it’s been changed and now points to the B.A.’s website.]
And so finally we know what’s actually going on. This is all just another piece of that absurd disinformation campaign — you know, the one where they get celebrities6 and nice label graphics to harp on about how beer is “99% Sugar Free”. Too Much To Beer lampooned it masterfully, months ago: cigarettes are sugar-free, too, aren’t they? I gave the whole thing an unkind going-over last year, as well, and I stand by everything I said; it’s a sham, cynical and disingenuous nonsense that seeks tactical advantage and is playing the public for fools. They want to convince you, the drinker, that beer is “water, malt, hops, yeast ― that’s all”,7 because they don’t want there to be demand for (or support of) any regulation that might force them to disclose anything more detailed. But you should know that reality is often more complicated, and I just can’t see why people with common dietary requirements shouldn’t be able to easily discover whether something is (for example) brewed with lactose, or wheat, or clarified with animal products. How could you know, if you aren’t told?
The Brewers Association are obviously pushing this tactic pretty hard; the Spinoff piece isn’t uniquely awful by any means — as I was writing this up, I discovered an enjoyably absurd ‘advertorial’ in Capital magazine.8 It’s three pages of beer and food matching, ostensibly by Wellington chef Shaun Clouston and though it never actually states that it’s sponsored by the B.A.,9 it leads with mention of a survey of theirs, all the products featured are from their members, and it’s full of the same lines about beer being “made from just four ingredients” and “99% sugar free”.10 And, like the Beer 101 above, it’s embarrassingly shallow: the six beers are all pale lagers or pale ales, for starters — there’s no mention of anything dark or sour, for example, despite those being excellent food-match potential and having plenty of exemplars within Lion and D.B.’s portfolios. Shaun’s done plenty of genuinely interesting beer events, and about a third of the list at Logan Brown contradicts the “four ingredients” mantra he’s parroting here for the B.A.. This effort is pretty damn hypocritical, from him, on top of the sponsor’s obvious malicious intent.
I want you to expect better than this crap. You deserve more transparency and just more worthwhile content from your media outlets. And, just as importantly, you deserve more useful information from your breweries — whether they’re members of the Brewers Association or not.
- After all, I spend untold unpaid hours making things ― like this (he says, gesturing at this very website) ― and giving them away for free. And I unashamedly advocate running ad-blocking software, which makes the internet significantly less horrible to be on, but admittedly harder for people to make money from.
- The brand-supported OK Go videos are my favourite examples ― see, for example, the Rube Goldberg machine sponsored by an insurance company, or the low-gravity acrobatics courtesy of a Russian airline, or the slow-motion synchronisation paid for, for some entirely unfathomable reason, by salt. If you want a beer-related example, I think Good Beer Hunting actually do this partner-content stuff pretty well.
- You could start with her article on “weird beer”, which is (in many ways) the polar opposite of the piece I’m criticising here, or her barnburner on sexism in beer.
- The Brewers Association (NZ) is just Lion and D.B.. I’m not sure how the NZ and Australian B.A. entities are related, officially; it looks like former is effectively a subsidiary of the latter, but there might be some more-complicated structure to it. I’ve certainly always treated the B.A. dot-n-z and the B.A. dot-a-u as the same thing, and it’s never caused a real problem.
- Whatever the hell a “world class declaration of interest” would refer to, surely it’d be stronger than this.
- It’s worth noting that the use of one of them, the rower Eric Murray, was ruled to be in breach of advertising standards and while the B.A. undertook to take down his campaign material “from unrestricted areas” his sponsored posts on Instagram are still up — and have never been tagged as ads, which is also in breach of standards. The other spokesman, actor Robbie Magasiva, is guilty of the latter in his posts, also. The two spokeswomen — actress Antonia Prebble and musician Hollie Smith — evidently have a better understanding of the rules, better social media managers, or the B.A. couldn’t afford their sponsored post rates.
- To borrow one of the lines attributed to Lion’s Kirsten Taylor in the piece.
- It’s not available online, and I wasn’t going to pay $27 for the pdf, but here’s a vaguely-readable larger version of the above scan if (for some reason) you want to try and read it.
- I suppose they’re just hoping you won’t notice the “Advertorial” tag and read it as genuine content. But without an overt sponsor, it’s deeply weird if you do notice the tag: you’re left to wonder if Shaun’s restaurant (Logan Brown) backed it, or he paid for it himself, for some daft reason. I do hope he at least got a hefty paycheck to compensate for the lost credibility.
- It’s particularly galling that this line gets dropped when he’s recommending we match fruit cake with Speight’s, and says that given “the fact that most beer is 99 percent sugar free… you can enjoy without worrying about a sugar rush!” I should think the fucking fruit cake will take care of that, Shaun.