Last week, Don’t Panic found itself on the receiving end of harsh criticism for a parody campaign it launched following an open letter from BrewDog staff detailing, among other things, the mental health issues they claim its work culture had caused. Here, the agency’s founder Joe Wade explains the thought process behind the initiative.
“Explaining humor is a lot like dissecting a frog – you learn a lot in the process, but in the end you kill it.” So said Mark Twain. Nonetheless I thought it’s a sacrifice worth making to explain what we were attempting to do with our parody BrewDog cans, particularly as it has angered some people whose opinions we really respect.
That BrewDog has been accused of treating staff poorly isn't entirely surprising given that it has plenty of form in terms of egregious behavior, whether it be suing small businesses, launching a pink beer for women or, more recently, being accused of copying agency Manifest’s concept after a pitch and then labeling its alcohol-free beer Punk AF – the inspiration for our Toxic AF flavor.
We thought the cans were an appropriate response given novelty varieties have been deployed by BrewDog itself, most recently its ‘Barnard Castle’ variety in response to Dominic Cummings’s infamous eye-test trip.
Now, anyone who’s ever encountered me will know that I never, ever mention the fact that I have won a comedy TV Bafta (and was nominated again), but in this case it seems justified, because when we made the political satire show The Revolution Will Be Televised we had one rule for our satire – always punch up.
In this case, the targets for mockery are the multi-millionaire ‘punks’ who run BrewDog, and in no way their long-suffering workforce.
The can ‘Stale, Male, Pale Ale’ is clearly aimed at the leadership of the company and how their ‘punk’ approach is an outmoded and an inappropriate way to run a big business. This point was reiterated in Toxic AF and Culture of Fear Beer, which use some of the lingua franca associated with workplace bullying and the mental health issues that can cause. These seem to be the cans that people have taken an issue with.
Firstly, it is worth pointing out that Punks With Purpose, the organization of ex-workers leading the anti-BrewDog campaign, have tweeted a ‘Toxic Workplace’ can themselves (image below) demonstrating that they are behind the idea rather than offended by it.
This demonstrates that sometimes a well-meaning reaction to humor that deals with difficult topics can actually rob people of the tools to a) examine an issue that affects them in a new way, b) find humor in an issue that was previously bleak and depressing, and c) attack the people responsible for their predicament.
As an agency we take calculated creative risks to cut through and make a point, without spending much on media, and so are always prepared for the fact that a minority of people (who aren’t really our audience) may take umbrage, as long as the vast majority engages.
The biggest risk for us, and any agency that talks about social purpose issues, is to adopt a bland and mainstream approach that, while it doesn’t offend, goes completely unnoticed.
Joe Wade is chief executive officer and co-founder of Don’t Panic. He tweets on @Mrjoewade