Scottish brewery Brewdog is back with one of its favourite capers: A provocative piece of publicity that crumbles into hypocrisy with the slightest nudge.
The self-described “craft” and “punk” beer maker has launched a new advertising campaign with London agency Saatchi & Saatchi, billed as an “anti-sponsorship” of the upcoming men’s football World Cup in Qatar.
Billboards broadcast slogans including:
- “First Russia, then Qatar. Can’t Wait for North Korea.”
- “Proud antisponsor [sic] of the World F*Cup”
- “Eat, sleep, bribe football.”
The brewery followed the billboard campaign with a statement, declaring that “to be clear, we love football, we just don’t love corruption, abuse, and death.”
“So join us. Let’s raise a glass to the players. To the fans. To free speech. And two fingers to anyone who thinks a World Cup in Qatar makes sense.”
This glass-raising to free speech — and by extension, the rights of migrant workers building the stadiums for the tournament, thousands of whom have died — comes just 10 months since sustained criticism of the brewery’s working conditions and approach to employment complaints, following the airing of a documentary, entitled Disclosure: The Truth About Brewdog.
Six months prior, an open letter signed by more than 75 former employees accused the brewery, and specifically co-founder James Watt, of creating a “culture of fear in the business.”
Responding to the new advertising, Bryan Simpson, trade union Unite’s industrial organiser for the hospitality sector, told City A.M. that Brewdog were hypocrites. “The treatment of workers in Qatar is an international scandal, but BrewDog have a cheek saying anything about workers’ rights,” he said. Simpson recalled hundreds of employees past and present demanding an apology for behaviours including harassing, assaulting, belittling, insulting, and gaslighting.
And that’s not all. With Brewdog, hypocrisy tends to come in layers; the punks have turned it into a fine art. Sale of alcohol is tightly restricted in Qatar, with only one, state-controlled distributor in operation: the Qatar Distribution Company. Some are speculating that Brewdog has signed a deal to supply its beer through that company for the World Cup — before launching its anti-sponsorship campaign. Even if the deal were not direct, any brewery wishing to sell into the Qatari market would, eventually, have to work with the distribution company.
In response to questions about the manner in which the company is getting its beer to Qatar, a Brewdog spokesperson said “we’re not going to get into specifics” but offered the following statement.
We are pleased our campaign has struck a nerve and successfully raised huge awareness of the continued human rights abuses in Qatar. We don’t sell direct to Qatar, but we do have a relationship with a distributor that sells into multiple Middle Eastern markets, primarily into Dubai but including Qatar.
Addressing the implicit accusation of hypocrisy, Brewdog wants to point the finger at brands bigger than it, which it deems guilty of far worse.
Apple sells iPhones in Qatar — that doesn’t mean it endorses human rights abuses. Neither do we. We are doing our bit to raise awareness of these scandals and injustices and will keep doing so. If people want to attack brands, maybe they’d be better off turning their attention to the likes of Adidas, Kia, and Visa who are all official partners of FIFA.
Brewdog has long harnessed social media’s traction to disseminate information and court controversy quickly, and marketing stunts have been an integral part of the brand’s growth. Its 2019 foray into criticising Boris Johnson aside, the company has frequently leaned into the likes of casual sexism and “beer porn” in order to try and flog some cans. So while criticising the myriad ethical problems with Qatar’s World Cup is uncontroversial, doing so while selling its beer to fans, and without demonstrating concrete changes in its own working conditions, is another matter entirely.