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Company: Brasserie De La Senne
Breach: Yes
Final Decision: 12 December 2019

Complaint summary

“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]’.”

Complainant

Zenith Global (as part of the independent audit of the Sixth Edition of the Code 2019)

Decision

Under Code paragraph 3.2(b)

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 behavior

UPHELD

The company’s submission

The company first stated how ridiculous they found the complaint. The company questioned if anyone in the UK would be stupid enough to have believed the beer would give strength from the label, which depicted a comic-strip-like character or have become violent having seen an obvious funny caricature with cultural references. The company highlighted that, at 4.5 ABV, Taras Boulba was one of the lightest Belgian beers.

The company explained 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 Panel’s assessment

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.

The Panel acknowledged that these characters were inspired by Taras Bulba by Nikolai Gogol, however they considered that the narrative would not be clear to British consumers looking at the label. The Panel noted there was no information about the story to inform a consumer unfamiliar with the folklore. Therefore, the Panel could only review the image without considering the wider context presented in the Producer’s response.

The Panel referred to its previous decision about Heineken’s ‘Spectre’ packaging, which featured an image of James Bond holding a gun (previously not upheld under 3.2(b)). The Panel discussed the differences between the two products, and whether Taras Boulba went further in its depiction of violence than the James Bond image. The Panel concluded that there was a substantive difference due to the figure being actively aggressive on the Taras Boulba label. The Panel also highlighted the fact that the Taras Boulba label included a victim of the violence, which the Heineken bottle did not. The Panel was therefore content that there was a difference between the two illustrations.

The Panel recognised that Taras Boulba was an imported beer, with small UK sales, but stressed that the Code still applied. The Panel considered that producers could use stories and satire, as well as well-designed labels, for the packaging of alcoholic products. However, they concluded that the Code would not allow a label depicting someone throwing a heavy object at a cowering victim on the floor, especially not a beer barrel, which further connected the violence to alcohol. The Panel agreed there were alternative ways of communicating the story and considered that in its current form the labelling was problematic. The Panel upheld the complaint under 3.2(b).

Action by Company:

To be confirmed.