So, it looks like Lion — one half of the local brewing duopoly, and ultimately a subsidiary of Kirin* — is taking out a series of infomercials on TVNZ. Product placement so thick it amounts to entire blocks of ‘programming’ was probably the invention of home improvement shows and hardware stores, and maybe brewery marketing departments just got jealous and wanted in on the action.
Al Brown, one of those forever-wandering-with-a-film-crew TV chefs, will host ‘Made to Match’: a series about beer and food matching, apparently including the range of beers available, some background on their styles, and what goes well with what. I couldn’t be more behind the idea of normalising beer in this way — the near-constant conjunction of “and wine” whenever the topic turns to good food is grindingly sad — but there’s a lot to lament in the pitch of this show / ad campaign / thing. I’m honestly not sure what category of production it belongs in, from what I’ve seen so far; whether it’s a series of daytime advertorials, online-only webisodes, or an actual ‘show’ that’ll be broadcast on to the physical teevee box. But then, “television”, much like “phone”, is one of those increasingly-abstracted gadget-concepts, anyway.1 It all has the same effect, in the end, especially when the programming-advertising boundary is blurred this hard.
It takes ‘origin-fudging’ — the increasingly common practice of being, shall we say, less than entirely truthful about the history and production of various beers — to a depressingly deep new low. Here, every brand is presented in a maximally-distorted way, just as the marketing department would like. The mere fact that all of these beers are produced and/or distributed by one company is entirely elided, and Lion itself only rates a mention in the beer-descriptions department during the (hilariously straight-faced) write-up for Lion Red. Even Steinlager is treated almost as if it were a from different company, and Lion / Kirin* are entirely absent from the website’s WHOIS information; there, it’s all TVNZ. I’m sure it’s all well within the rules about product placement — tellingly, Lion’s own corporate policy seems only to care about when other people use their products as props, and doesn’t commit to being open about when it does so — or at least that someone on a healthy retainer stands poised to so argue, but it does stink a bit.
The beers that Lion brew here in New Zealand under license are hyped as long-heritaged international imports as hard as possible: Beck’s is “the No. 1 German beer in the world” and “…brewed according to Reinheitsgebot”;2 Guinness is “known worldwide as the beer of Ireland, and the gold standard for stouts”;3 Oranjeboom dates “back to 1528” and is a “popular European beer [which] originates from Breda in Holland”; Stella Artois’ story “dates back to 1366” and its “the best selling Belgian beer brand in the world”.4 On the more-local front, gdmfing Crafty Beggars make an appearance with Lion still not feeling proud enough of their brewers and their beer to admit that the ‘rogue brewers’ are their employees, while Speight’s ‘Distinction Ale’ happily crows about winning several awards despite the categories they were in being directly contradictory to how the brand is marketed. And just look at how the ‘James Squires’ beers are steeped in their Colonial Australian history and bursting with references to the country’s first commercial brewer, deftly skating past the uncomfortable fact that the beers are merely named after him; there’s no history here, just brandwank.
The blurbs always fall just short of outright lies — their lawyers are too good for that — but, taken together, form a teetering pile of half-truths and non-sequiturs that looks very-carefully-crafted indeed to achieve maximum bullshit without opening up liability, and to maintain the illusion that this is a diverse range of beers picked for their inherent qualities and suitability to the task, rather than a (presumably) bought-and-paid-for exclusive placement which locks out all other local and international candidates. All that said, if you delve into the “Terms & Conditions”, Lion do finally front up and say ‘Hello! We’re in charge of this thing, by the way.’ — and the statistics are predictably grim on what miniscule fraction of humanity actually clicks through to pages labelled that. But it’s mostly there to completely disclaim, in the usual spineless boilerplate, any promises of accuracy — their marketing code of practice, equally tellingly, contains no particular commitments about being truthful and forthcoming with the facts — and to (weirdly) suggest that I’m not allowed to link to them without their express permission, in an apparent complete misunderstanding of how the internet works.
Big breweries (and Lion, in particular) have a habit of playing their brands — and thereby their consumers — off against each other, in a way that’ll easily leave the impression that ‘Made to Match’ is better-rounded than it is. For everyone who makes beer who isn’t Lion, it’ll do a tremendous disservice-by-omission, and so it damn well better have an enormously prominent “this program brought to you by Lion” kind of disclaimer front and center — especially (but not only) since it’s airing on, and seemingly produced in substantial cooperation with, the national broadcaster. Little buried disclosures (like what they have so far) are only ever the absolute minimum, they’re not automatically exculpatory.
It’s going to be worth watching to see how they play that kind of thing — and to find out more about TVNZ’s involvement — but I’m not optimistic enough to think it’ll be anything other than a sin-counting exercise in seeing how shameless they are, rather than waiting to see if they front up decently. Which is a real shame, because there’s a huge need for mass-media beer education of an engaged and entertaining sort, but you just can’t trust the Big Breweries to handle this stuff in any kind of fair and honest and genuinely informative way.5 Their structure, their contrived “brand stories”, their peculiar kind of cowardice when it comes to the realities of their history and how they operate, and their ingrained shitty haibts just won’t let them, it seems — their approach to selling their products is entirely at odds with providing information.
*: This post originally phrased Lion’s ultimate parentage as “Kirin / Mitsubishi” which I’ve since learned isn’t correct. Kirin is a member of the Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, but that’s not the same thing as being a subsidiary of the car maker, which was the impression I initially had, and passed on, here. Thanks to Danny at Lion for the correction (July 2018).
1: I don’t own a television set, but I watch a fair amount of ‘TV’ — though not like it was traditionally broadcast, an episode at a time, once a week. And my phone spends a tiny fraction of its time as a “phone” — most of the time it’s a really little computer with sensory capabilities that more resemble a goddamn Trek-esque tricorder. Welcome to the future. (Now where’s my flying car?) ↑
2: Even though it’s not, for several reasons; the claim to follow a German law is just one of many ways they insinuate a German origin. ↑
3: It’s definitely not that, though it is for Irish Dry Stout, a corner of the black-beer spectrum that it basically invented. Speaking as a long-suffering bartender, way too many people see black beer and think “Guinness” and — if they happen not to like Guinness — shut themselves off from a wonderful range of options. ↑
4: Glengarry / Hancock’s hilariously inept promotional video has been ridiculed plenty — but still not enough. For present purposes, it’s worth re-watching as the least-subtle-ever use of that slippage between “beer” and “beer brand”. ↑
5: It’s an utterly trivial example, really, but the contradiction between the inclusion of a pretty-good ‘Why you should always pour your beer into a glass’ section and the classic “everyone at a barbeque drinking from the bottle, with the label carefully-but-casually held facing outwards” montage of the introductory video speaks volumes right out of the gate. ↑