A complaint in the UK that Brasserie De La Senne’s label for Taras Bulba depicts violence has been upheld by the industry body appointed to monitor breaches of the industry Codes of Practice.
Brasserie De La Senne will now have to respond to the Portman Group’s decision stating how it intends to change the label, which depicts a man lifting a barrel over another cowering man.
The Portman Group said the label breached the code’s paragraph 3.2(b) that “A drink, its packaging and any promotional material or activity should not in any direct or indirect way suggest any association with bravado, or with violent, aggressive, dangerous, anti-social or illegal behavour.”
The complaint, filed as part of an independent audit on alcohol labels commissioned by the Portman Group stated:
“The imagery on the label may evoke associations with violent and aggressive behaviour. The man lifting a barrel is red in face, which suggests the state of being very angry – this is understood literally by all consumers irrespectively whether they are familiar with the novel or not. The fact that he is lifting a barrel may be associated with super strength consumers can get after consuming a drink. The Flemish word ‘smeirlap’ literally means ‘greasy rag’ and is used as a term of abuse. The best translation is probably ‘bastard’. All this carries out a message of violent behaviour, likely to be associated with the consumption of the drink. Although the imagery is based on Nikolai Gogol’s novel ‘Taras Bulba’, a Ukrainian Cossack of the Orthodox Christian faith whose son started a romantic relationship with a woman from Polish Catholic church and his father, Tras Boulba, became very angry, it is unlikely that many consumers will be familiarised with the story and may get an impression that the product will give them an extra strength or will help them to express anger and other violent emotions. The caption in a very dense Flemish dialect reads: ‘Well, thanks! Taras Boulba is wild with anger [hopping mad, maybe?]. His son has married a Wollin [i.e. a girl from Wollin in Poland]’.”
Brasserie De La Senne, in its submission, found the complaint “ridiculous”, probably not a wise tactic to take. According to the Portman Group the company claimed:
“…the narrative behind the imagery on the label: they stated it was political and related to Belgium, designed to mock their politicians and the problems created between the French and Flemish speakers. The company stated that the novel, Taras Bulba by Gogol, had been transformed into a narrative about a local brewer who spoke the old Brussels dialect, a form of Flemish. He was told his son secretly married a girl from Wallonia (French speaking), got mad, and threatened to throw a barrel at his face. The company explained the writing meant “well, Taras Boulba is very angry, his son married a girl form Wallonia”, not Wollin Poland as was suggested in the complaint. The company stated it was up to people to invent the rest of the story.
The company questioned whether “Smeirlap”, meaning bastard in Brussels dialect, could be understood by or offend British people. They argued that even in Brussels, with 1.2 million inhabitants, probably fewer than 500 people would understand it.
The company highlighted the crooked building (the town hall of Brussels), the circus and the face of the characters; they argued that the tone of the label was obviously a joke and a caricature.
The company stated that James Clay (the importer) had sold only 560 litres of this product in the UK over the last year. The company stated that Taras Boulba was a well-known and respected beer and a cult product in Italy and the US, and no local authority had raised concerns.
The company explained their designer took inspiration from the painting Guernica by Picasso and questioned whether paintings incited violent reactions.”
The complaints panel did not find this explanation convincing and responded:
“Firstly, the Panel sympathised with the producer, who had entered an unfamiliar market. The Panel considered that the word ‘Smeirlap’ was not problematic. The word was Flemish dialect, and so the average member of the British public would not understand it meant ‘bastard’. The Panel agreed that it would require a consumer to actively research the word to understand its meaning.
The Panel considered that the image on the product was problematic because it depicted a violent act. Specifically, the Panel was concerned because the image showed one character throwing a barrel at another lying on the floor. The Panel highlighted the facial expressions of the characters, noting that one was very angry and the other very fearful. The Panel agreed this image was problematic because the image showed violence that was directed at an individual. The Panel also raised concerns around the use of the beer barrel, which indirectly linked the aggressive act to beer as a product. The Panel did not believe this was appropriate and considered that producers should endeavour to limit connections between anger or violence and alcoholic products.”
Meanwhile Brouwerij Huyghe escaped from a complaint that its label for Delirium Tremens (as we know it in Belgium) did not breach the group’s code that “A drink, its packaging and any promotional material or activity should not in any direct or indirect way suggest that the product has therapeutic qualities, can enhance mental or physical capabilities, or change mood or behaviour.”
The Portman Group’s panel dismissed a complaint that ““The product name and pink elephant image directly promotes enhanced mental capabilities, therapeutic qualities and mood altering effects. Delirium means a serious disturbance in mental abilities and confused state. The pink elephant is a euphemism for drunken hallucination.”
The panel noted that Brouwerij Huyghe had removed the word “Tremens” from the name of the beer in 1999 as sold in the UK after a panel decision. In this decision the panel “acknowledged that pink elephants could be a euphemism for drunken hallucinations but considered that the cultural association was not so strong that the elephant amounted to a suggestion that the product could induce hallucination. The Panel agreed that neither the pink elephant nor the dancing crocodiles suggested that the product caused delirium. After discussing the packaging at length, the Panel considered there were no claims or cues that implied the product could alter mental capabilities or change mood and behaviour.”