How one man’s successful mashup of whisk(e)y and Star Wars action figures ended in a complaint taken up before the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States and turned into a cautionary tale for the industry.

Social media is a curious thing. If you are anywhere near my age, you did not grow up with it一Instagram had just begun to reach the mainstream by the time that I was a sophomore in college, and then it was still a couple of years before it would be anywhere near its current level of popularity. Certainly no one was making money off the platform, save for a lucky few, but today that seems less and less the case. Monetizing a successful platform is a very real career goal, and that is especially true for users with some real talent behind the lens. For Brett, aka the Scotch Trooper, success seemed almost guaranteed.The Scotch Trooper started as an Instagram account dedicated to documenting a man’s passion project一photographing bottles of whisk(e)y next to Star Wars action figures一and eventually grew into a full-time job. It seems that quickly after his account began to gain traction, brands were reaching out to him with offers for work. Brett himself says that the amount of money he made off his actual Instagram was roughly 10% of his overall earnings, but the renown he gained from his account allowed him to create profitable relationships with brands in the industry. He had become something of a social media influencer, a term that sounds a little ambiguous but is actually a very real job, and found success through his passion, which is admirable and enviable, to say the least. So what exactly is cautionary about this tale? Well, it’s a combination of things, really, but first and foremost, Brett got involved in an industry without complete knowledge of all the rules, and it ended up coming back to bite him. A couple years after transferring to work full time as the Scotch Trooper, Brett was notified of a complaint that had been filed against him with the Distilled Spirits Council of the United States. In the 26-page submission, an anonymous person detailed many of the trips Brett took and brands he had worked with over the past two years and suggested that his content was in violation of the rules set in place that prohibit advertising to minors due to its involvement of toys. To be clear, this is not something that I fault Brett for.

If I hadn’t done marketing work for a non-profit organization in this industry, I doubt I would be as attuned to this rule as I am now. According to the FTC’s page on Alcohol Advertising, “Most alcohol advertisers have pledged to comply with one of three voluntary self-regulatory codes designed to limit targeting of teens. Among other provisions, these codes direct that no more than 28.4% of the audience for an ad may consist of people under 21, based on reliable audience data; and that ad content should not appeal primarily to people under 21.” Though that number is specific, the metric itself is quite murky, especially for those members of the industry who work by themselves or on a freelance basis. I suppose if anyone should have caught this, it’s the marketing teams of the individual brands who sought out Brett as an independent contractor, but even they deserve a bit of leeway in this instance because it's hard to say with absolute certainty whether or not the audience of the Scotch Trooper’s page was made up of more than 28.4% people under 21, especially considering the love that many adult people have for Star Wars.

The bodies that govern advertising in the adult beverage industry, however, do have reason to be extreme in cases like these: there are still a lot of strong feelings about underage alcohol consumption, few of which are positive. I also understand Brett’s visible frustration in this video where he recounts his ordeal一it is undoubtedly disheartening to have something that you worked so hard for completely undermined by a rule that seems arbitrary. I think that everyone in the above video, and in the greater whisk(e)y community, should take a second and step back to examine the picture in its entirety. This is alcohol advertising in the United States. I hardly believe that anyone at the Council upheld this complaint as a petty act of jealousy towards the Scotch Trooper, although I cannot speak to the motivations of the person who initially filed the complaint.

The Council was, in this instance, doing its job to the best of its ability, but there is a gray area as big as the Pacific surrounding matters such as this. Does it suck? Absolutely. Did Brett deserve what happened to him? Certainly not, he wasn’t out to do any harm. Is it a surprise? Not exactly, but hindsight is 20/20.Therein lies the caution of this tale: Instagram and social media marketing will allow people who have never before worked in this industry to get a foothold and possibly begin a fruitful career, which is incredible, but there is semantics to consider, especially with online marketing. Before you decide to embark on a social media marketing campaign, take a look at the TTB and the Council’s websites. It could save you many headaches further down the road. In this case, in particular, I feel for the Scotch Trooper and hope he can continue to find meaning with his work in this industry. May the force be with him.

Download PDF