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Hard seltzer for the "Let's Go Brandon" set
On Happy Dad, Donald Trump, and the lucrative gambit of quenching partisan thirst
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Last week, former president and current social media start-up bro Donald Trump joined a podcast with the Nelk Boys, the jockish Canadian-American #content collective behind the Happy Dad hard ser brand, in an episode whose video version was quickly banned from YouTube for misinformation about the 2020 election.
There’s a lot going on in that sentence, I know. Too much, really. I’m going to skip over the election misinfo bit because it’s bad but in no way newsworthy (Trump has been playing that tune for literal years at this point.) But a former president sitting down with a bunch of creator bros who are sipping cans of their flavored malt beverage brand with a ripped-open 12-pack conspicuously in frame seems weird/significant enough to at least mark for posterity. So let’s!
For the uninitiated, the Nelk Boys are a gang of very popular YouTube hunk-jabronis who do pranks and objectify women to the tune of 20 million views a month on their main channel alone. “If you took the frats depicted in ’80s and ’90s college movies and gave them the technology of 2021 America, that’s basically what Nelk is,” is how the founder of the creator economy-focused publication Tubefilter described them in the New York Times last year. Happy Dad is a hard seltzer brand they launched right around that same time as another way to leverage their rabid online fandom into IRL sales.
Other celebrities have tried to cash in on the category’s boom and thusfar mostly failed. *stares in Travis Scott* But in Happy Dad, the Nelk Boys have built a legitimate FMB brand in short order. According to Nielsen retail scan data reviewed by Fingers, over a 13-week period ending on 2/26/22, Happy Dad did just under $3.6 million in sales, making it a top-15 hard seltzer in the U.S. Even more impressive, it has yet to go national: according to the brand’s website, it’s available in just 10 states, and its Instagram comments sections regularly feature would-be customers demanding to know when it’ll be available in their area.
For a mainstream beverage-alcohol brand to give a controversial politician like Trump uncritical access to a massive platform to push lies about the election he lost and tilt at literal windmills like a coot while on video with their flagship product is basically unfathomable. But the adjacency to Donnie Deals probably won’t damage the Nelk Boys’ sales pitch on Happy Dad, and may even wind up boosting the brand amongst right-wing drinkers looking for brands that proactively cater to their worldview rather than quietly tolerating it. With their damn-the-torpedos schtick and revenues flowing not from platform monetization but merch sales—and now, Happy Dad sales, too—the Nelk Boys are positioned to give those customers a scaling alternative to White Claw et al. With lewd, retrograde ads like this one, the group has already demonstrated its comfort courting controversy to sell seltzer; substituting polarizing politics for porn parodies is just adding more dimension to their well-honed edgelord repertoire.
It may wind up being a sound strategy. “These are big, crowded markets, and one of the classic ways to enter a very cluttered market is to find a way to really resonate with a small group of people,” Tim Calkins, associate marketing chair at Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, told me last October in an interview for this report on the emerging Black Rifle-fication of beverage alcohol, speaking about some other partisan booze brands that had just then sprung up. Niches make you riches, as they saying goes, and with millions of diehard subscribers who have already bought into their worldview (with shitloads of real money, by the way: the NYT’s piece noted that the group was projecting $70 million in merch revenues in 2021) there’s no reason to assume Happy Dad won’t make the Nelk Boys riches, too.
Whether it’s… like… “ethical,” or “good for society” that a group of fratty male creators is using its tremendous media reach and cocky outsider aura to advance right-wing talking points with the guy who until recently had the nuclear codes, all in the service of hard seltzer product placement, is another question entirely. I think probably not! But make no mistake, it’s happening. To wit: on Monday, one of the principle Nelk Boys tweeted a photo of disgraced conspiracy theorist and unhappy dad Alex Jones posing with a 12-pack of Happy Dad in an apparent response to the right-wing media’s freakout over YouTube’s decision to remove their Trump video. Trump himself issued a whiny statement and went on Fox to complain about it over the weekend; bow-tied charlatan Tucker Carlson also mentioned it as an example of tech censorship in a segment. The Nelk Boys may not have intended to make Happy Dad the official hard seltzer of the “Let’s Go Brandon” set, but now it’s headed that way, and they don’t seem too bothered by it.
Expect more of this, from more creators and brands. In a fractured and partisan media environment, there’s every reason to play to—and sell to—your base. This is a longstanding tradition on the American right wing, and hard seltzer, as an ahistorical, premium-priced beverage that’s relatively inexpensive to make and carries no cultural baggage, is an ideal product for aspiring 20-something hucksters like the Nelk Boys to hawk to an impressionable young audience already thirsty for line-stepping, anti-PC troll theater. In other words, if Happy Dad succeeds long-term, it won’t be in spite of the group’s decision to cozy up with Donald Trump and tweet endorsements from Alex Jones—it’ll be, at least in part, because of it.
📬 Good post alert
🔎 BrewDog hired “serious crime investigators” to go after critics
There have been some recent, and absolutely bananas, developments in the case of BrewDog, the Scottish craft brewery whose marketing practices, workplace conditions, and chief executive’s behavior were the subject of a pretty ugly BBC documentary earlier this year. A few days prior to the documentary’s original air date, BrewDog’s embattled CEO James Watt took to LinkedIn in an apparent attempt to get out in front of the story; a few weeks after it aired, he returned to LinkedIn (he loves LinkedIn) to announce that the firm—Europe’s largest craft brewer, and a top-50 brewer in the U.S. by sales volume in 2020, according to the Brewers Association—had filed an official complaint about the doc with the BBC’s regulator, Ofcom. “We cannot simply stay quiet and allow these to go unchallenged – that isn’t the BrewDog way,” he wrote in a February 9th post.
All was quiet on the punk brewer front for a few weeks, but today the calm was shattered once again as The Guardian published a piece detailing how Watt and BrewDog had hired private investigators to gather intel on former workers who spoke in the BBC documentary in preparation of potential legal action against them and/or the broadcaster. “They said they’d been hired by James Watt and were serious crime investigators,” a former colleague of Rob Mackay, one of the former BrewDog employees who appeared on the doc, told the Guardian. The agents, who left a business card from the firm “Integritas Investigative Solutions” with the unnamed source, “said they’d been hired by James’s lawyers to build a case.” The Guardian reports that another former worker in the U.S. received similar outreach from lawyers here after the show aired “disputing [his] claims and asking him to retract them.”
Following the story’s publication, Watt—you guessed it!—posted on LinkedIn dismissing it as “distraction” while confirming that the company did in fact hire P.I.s to turn up info on BrewDog’s critics. In the post, the exec frames the documentary and the ongoing external organizing/agitating by the former-employee organization Punks with Purpose as an illegitimate smear campaign, and that the counter-investigation was simply to “protec[t] the business from malicious individuals who wish to cause us harm.” Watt added that the firm is already pursuing legal action against unnamed defendants:
The objective of our enquiries was to understand the extent of the campaign against us and to take appropriate legal action to bring it to an end. A criminal prosecution for serious fraud and malicious communications is now under way in a court in London. There are related civil proceedings underway in The Court of Session in Scotland. Furthermore, there is a separate police complaint against a [Punks with Purpose] founder for blackmail.
This is all pretty nuts, and seems to give the lie to Watt and BrewDog’s publicly stated goals to grow as a leader and a company, respectively. After all, many of its former employees’ grievances (both in the doc, and Punks with Purpose materials) have centered on the company allegedly using heavy-handed pressure tactics, fear-based manipulation, and legal threats to silence criticism, which sounds… a lot like what’s going on here!
Upon hearing of this latest development (from Twitter like three minutes after waking up, lol) the first thing I thought of was that 2014 BuzzFeed News story about an Uber executive who casually suggested digging dirt up on/doxxing a reporter to get her to stop writing critically of the ridesharing company. Crucially, that particular incident transpired at a not-off-the-record dinner in New York City; the U.S.’s libel/defamation laws are much more favorable to a free press than are the United Kingdom’s, where BrewDog is located and any future litigation would presumably take place. Stay tuned for more on this as it develops, or if you’re feeling sporty/masochistic, check out the business-brain simping in the comments below Watt’s latest post.
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