Detour: Pilsner and Prejudice

The Danish brewing company Carlsberg introduced earlier this year a new beer called “Copenhagen 56°N.” The beer is a German pilsner, with a light yellow hue and a taste like champagne from a rotting juice box. The beer has been marketed as relentlessly hip ― an alcoholic accessory to a well-designed image and a world-class city. According to a Danish beer guide, 56°N is for “modern women and men” and is inspired by a vision of “Copenhagen as an international fashion and design city.”

I first encountered this terrible beer at an opening party for an architecture exhibition. Arranged in clustered nodes around the room were dozens of bottles of Copenhagen 56°N, along with structurally impressive hors d’œuvre and a mellow atmosphere of upbeat electronic music. Everything is free of course, with an open bent towards advertising and publicity: the beer dominates the scene and becomes a discussion point.

But the beverage is less concerned with taste and instead, markets itself deliberately as an object of design. It’s a beer meant to appeal to a demographic that doesn’t like beer ― it can taste like ass, but damn does it look pretty. The label screams a minimalist Scandinavian design conceit and features the Carlsberg name without alluding to the brewery’s recognizable symbols (green bottles, an elephant). It’s a classy product, a beer alternative to white wine or champagne. The minimalism applied to the external packaging is amplified inside with an impoverished beer — an extremely dry, sweet and flat beverage that’s more look than content.

I am not a beer critic. Sometimes I wish I were so that the preceding sentences might carry more weight. But what really irks me about this beer is its advertisement as an accessory, rather than a consumable. The beverage and bottle are designed as props in a fabulously-designed lifestyle of fashion and youth, corroborated by Carlsberg’s sponsorship of the Danish Fashion Awards as a setting to deploy Copenhagen 56°N. What seems to float to the surface of this urine-colored, bottom-fermenting lager is an unabashed focus on style over substance and an implicit targeting towards female drinkers.

After minimal digging through the Carlsberg marketing department’s website, my suspicions were immediately confirmed. Copenhagen 56°N is directed extensively at women who generally dislike the bitter taste of beer. Research has then developed a beer that has no hops added and is replaced with a yeast culture that produces smooth, crisp and lightweight adjectives — lifeless, in another word. The Innovation Director at Carlsberg, Jeanette Elgaard Carlsson, has mentioned that the beer appeals to design-conscious women whose purchases may depend on how the beverage coordinates with their appearance. Taste and price are secondary concerns while fashionable design is paramount.

This female-focused marketing strategy splits into two confusing directions. For the worse, it offends my love of beer, suggesting that my purchasing power and discriminating taste are coercible by insubstantial style and superficial design. However, the approach does offer a slight deviation from other established gender-based marketing strategies, particularly with beer. The targeted demographic may be women but, rather than an evoking women’s values through explicitly heterosexual or otherwise gendered scenarios, the advertisements for Copenhagen 56°N are devoid of human sexuality (or, as much as this is possible, just bear with me.) The strategy is remarkably consistent in that the commercials are also devoted entirely to design without any human substance: there is no man claiming to be the most interesting in the world, no bikini-clad volleyball players.

The commercial aligns the beverage with the city of Copenhagen, as a place constantly refreshed by new and unpredictable ideas. Whether this less obvious appeal to women is preferable, or less damaging, to an iteration on the question “what do women want?” in advertising is still unclear to me. I hate being seen as a predictable consumer, but I’m still susceptible to marketing that has spent incomprehensible amounts of time and money researching my cohort’s consumerist behaviors. Designing without gender in mind might liberate the product’s function to multiple uses, while also depersonalizing it.

So what should be promoted here? Pure utility without personality? Hyper-gendered props of social acceptance? Beer for beer-haters that also looks nice? Copenhagen 56°N is an experimentation of advertising values, if not a safely uncontroversial one. And it does look real nice clutched in my gigantic meaty paws.