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Where are booze's "brotesters"?
Move fast and... ah... reform alcohol regulations?
This morning, The Guardian published an explosive report about Uber based on 124,000 internal documents that show how it used lobbying, dark money, and cynical politics to advance its “fucking illegal” ridesharing worldwide. The upshot is that corporations with nearly limitless pools of capital and red-assed maniacs like Travis Kalanick at the helm can and do operate above the law. Shocking!
Reading through the report, I was reminded of a particular tactic that “gig economy” companies like Uber used last decade to bend bureaucrats and regulators to their will as they pushed outward into jurisdictions less amenable to Big Tech’s “move fast and break things” schtick. Basically, whenever a city council or state legislature was like “excuse me Mister Kalanick, please get the appropriate licenses for the taxi service you are currently running here illegally,” Uber would turn around and send email blasts to its riders encouraging them to take action to protect their artificially cheap, public transit-destroying private car service. Those riders acted en masse, blasting regulators with messages and petitions to help Uber secure favorable rulings.1 This hot-wired mix of corporate astroturfing, community organizing, and social media campaigning came to be known as “apptivism,” and more pejoratively in some circles2 as “brotesting,” a nod to the stereotype that those companies’ staff and customers were mostly comprised of socioeconomically stable white people who felt entitled to certain lifestyle amenities and could be incited to political action when those amenities under real or perceived threat.
With this in mind, let’s turn our attention to the American beverage-alcohol industry’s regulatory landscape, shall we? Last week, New Jersey announced it would begin enforcing an unpopular 2019 rule that severely limits how craft breweries in the Garden State conduct business. On Friday, North Carolina’s state legislature put the kibosh on a promising to-go cocktail bill. Over the weekend, Reason.com (lol I know but they’re good for this sort of thing) reported that around 150 new booze-related laws take effect this month, offering a “mixed bag” of regulatory results to industry boosters and rank-and-file drinkers alike. It’s hardly an open road for Big Booze these days legislatively speaking, but I have yet to encounter a major booze industry effort to activate customers to make their voices heard in bureaucrats’ inboxes.
In other words: where are all the pro-booze brotesters?
To be transparent, I honestly don’t know. Nor do I think that brotesting is, like, good; it strikes me as yet another symptom of a decaying representative democracy capable of being captured by special interests. But the biggest brewers/distillers/winemakers in the U.S. are deep-pocketed and sophisticated marketers that have absolutely no qualms about throwing around their political clout. They sell a lifestyle amenity that Americans of all stripes, especially those with discretionary income, genuinely love. And they’re constantly fending off regulatory challenges from neo-prohibitionists, anti-monopolists, and religious zealots.
Imagine if, say, E. & J. Gallo was facing a proposed new regulation in New York that it believed would hurt sales of High Noon, its powerhouse vodka-based RTD. High Noon already has a longstanding media partnership with Barstool Sports, a media outlet that’s very capable of launching online targeted-harassment campaigns under the guise of average-Joe populism. (For better or worse.) (Worse.) If Gallo’s lobbyists couldn’t secure its preferred outcome behind closed doors in Albany, is it inconceivable that they might turn to Barstool to incite the vodka-addled masses to pound regulators’ inboxes and phone lines with pro-High Noon messages?
I think the answer is yes: inconceivable! But why? Off the top of my head, I can come up with a few reasons beverage-alcohol heavyweights haven’t mustered Uber-style mass activations amongst their thirsty customers. None are are disqualifying on their own, but together they probably gum up the works enough to make brotesting Not A Thing in the booze business. To wit: Even the biggest booze brands can’t compare with the technological savvy of Silicon Valley’s digital titans. They don’t own the relationship to their customers thanks to the U.S.’s three-tier system—they share it with retailers and distributors, meaning no brand has a centralized app or database to spam with pro-booze messaging3, and that no tier has the same regulatory agenda. Booze companies prefer to flex their political muscles in private backrooms rather than public squares. Incremental booze regulations may really fuck up firms’ operations, but they’re nowhere near as dire (or even comprehensible) to regular drinkers as “sorry, no more transit” is to rideshare customers. The culture of “disruption” in the drinks business is mostly centered around product innovation, not regulatory manipulation. Plus there are probably legal restrictions on this sort of thing, though I can’t think of any off the top of my head. (Lawyers, chime in!)
Again, I’m not saying I want Barstool to start running High Noon oppo on state legislators that deign to consider bills that might hurt Gallo’s business. I very much don’t want this sort of thing to become commonplace, because that would be bad and stupid and I’d probably have to cover it.4 But barring some clear-cut legal reason that brotesting would land Big Booze on double-secret probation, isn’t it surprising that no major drinks brand has tried it yet? I think so!
Of course, brotesting only really works at scale, which means the strategy offers little reprieve to the smaller companies that could actually benefit from more leverage in regulatory scuffles. Like, for example, New Jersey’s craft brewers, who say they’re getting railroaded by enforcement of a law that unfairly favors the state’s restaurants and bars. As the executive director of one of the state’s two brewers guilds told Good Beer Hunting last week, “It’s seemingly regulators preserving the status quo system as much as possible.” It’s a a moment ripe for a brotest—and, frankly, deserving of it, too, in the way that many common-sense craft brewing reforms have been over the years. But this is a vast and fractured industry, with thousands of little firms that have their own way of doing things. Hell, NJ’s breweries can’t even agree on a single guild, much less launch an all-out messaging blitz! Without the absence of an opted-in database and billions of venture dollars to wage regulatory wars like Uber has for years, they’ll have to organize the old-fashioned way: taproom by taproom, one IPA-deprived bro at a time.
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“More than 450,000 Uber riders have signed petitions, the company says, and when an alert goes out, people respond quickly — sometimes at a rate of seven electronic signatures per second,” reported The Washington Post in 2014 in a deep dive on the company’s national political muscle. From Seattle, to Chicago, to Austin and Palm Beach, Uber hammered bureaucrats with what appeared to be organic demands from their grassroots constituency.
There’s a story about Lyft, I think from Gothamist or NY Mag or maybe Vox circa 2015ish, that introduced me to this term. I think? I cannot for the life of me surface it on Google, so I guess it’s possible that I am misremembering here. But I definitely didn’t invent this term.
That said, Uber did acquire Drizly, the country’s largest alcohol-delivery platform, just last year… hmm…
Although now that I’m imagining the booze industry equivalent of Uber’s 2015 “de Blasio” gambit—wherein the company pushed an app update that showed riders artificially high wait times that it claimed would become the norm if then-New York City mayor Bill de Blasio got his regulatory wishes—I’m realizing that this sort of pettiness would definitely be fun to write on.