• Dusty Weis

Lead Balloon Ep. 30 - Inside the PBR "Eating Ass" Tweetstorm, with Adweek Editor David Griner


Plus Special Guest Kyle Brown -- In our first NSFW episode, we try to decide whether social media manager Corey Smale deserved to get fired over the faux pas.

On January 3, Pabst Blue Ribbon lit the internet on fire with one obscene tweet:

“Not drinking this January? Try eating ass.”


The uproar was swift and loud. And PBR deleted the tweets and apologized publicly, even as some writers blamed a “rogue employee” for the tweets.

That was NOT the case. The offending Tweeter was actually an established social media manager by the name of Corey Smale, a creative enigma whose free-wheeling, hands-on approach had really resonated with the brand’s fans.


So what went wrong for PBR?


What safeguards did they have in place?


Who’s REALLY to blame for the ass-eating Twitter incident, and what can we learn from it?


On this episode, we pick through the wreckage with Kyle Brown, our go-to beer marketing correspondent, and with David Griner, Adweek’s International editor, who scored an exclusive interview with former PBR social media manager Corey Smale.


Plus, we examine an interview that Corey gave on the In Defense of Ska Podcast—mere weeks before his dismissal—to learn more about the process that had been established for running PBR's social media.


*Please note, this episode is NOT SAFE FOR WORK*


While you're here:


Transcript:


Dusty Weis:

So Kyle, you've listened to the Lead Balloon Podcast before, where we talk about disasters in PR and marketing. You even appeared on an episode way back. So let me ask you this. Has there ever been an episode of this show that was so inappropriate that you would not have listened to it with your kids in the car?


Kyle Brown:

I can't think that there is.


Dusty Weis:

No, no, there hasn't. We have been squeaky clean this entire time. Well, let me tell you, that is not going to be the case with today's episode. So Kyle, can you do me a favor and read us the disclaimer please.


Kyle Brown:

Due to the graphic and even obscene nature of the topic we're covering today, today's episode is rated R and may be inappropriate for young listeners and some professional environments.


Dusty Weis:

That was good. That was very nice. Thank you. So if the kids are around, if you've got us on the speakers and your boss is uptight, this is your last chance to hit the pause button and come back later or slip those headphones on right now because Kyle, you know what today's episode is about?


Kyle Brown:

Eating ass.


Dusty Weis:

Specifically, a series of tweets from the brand Twitter account to Pabst Blue Ribbon, long celebrated as the beer of choice for grandpas and hipsters. And these days, hipsters who are starting to look like grandpas. And for a couple years now, PBR's social media feeds have been turning heads with some edgy, inappropriate and sometimes just deliberately weird tweets and Instagram posts. And frankly, it was working pretty well for them. That is until a few days into the new year, PBR used its platform to mock the Dry January trend, which has been gaining attention recently, where in some folks attempt to get a handle on their relationship with alcohol by going cold turkey during the coldest month of the year. And then responding to the online backlash from this tactic, PBR lit the internet on fire when it tweeted out to its 100,000 followers:


Kyle Brown:

"Not drinking this January? Try eating ass."


Dusty Weis:

The uproar was swift and loud. Social media got more riled up about this than just about any brand Twitter story since edgy brand Twitter became a thing. Every advertising and culture publication had at least an article on PBR's sudden embrace of analingus and PBR deleted the tweets and apologized publicly, even as some writers blamed a rogue employee for the tweets. While that was not the case, the offending tweeter would was actually an established social media manager by the name of Corey Smale, a creative enigma whose freewheeling hands on approach had really resonated with the brands' fans.


Corey Smale:

The brand, it moves quick because when it is that small, it is like being in a band. Everyone has their job.


Dusty Weis:

So what went wrong for PBR? What safeguards did they have in place and who's really to blame for the ass eating Twitter incident? On this episode, we're going to pick through the wreckage like forensic detectives and see what lessons we can extrapolate with Kyle Brown, our go-to beer marketing correspondent, and with David Griner, AdWeek's international editor who scored the exclusive interview with PBR's fired social media manager.


David Griner:

And to me, affiliating rats with your product is a lot riskier than telling people to eat ass.


Dusty Weis:

I'm Dusty Weis. From Podcamp Media, this is Lead Balloon, a podcast about PR marketing and branding disasters and the well-meaning communications professionals who lived them. Thanks for tuning in. Please make sure you're following or subscribing to this podcast in your favorite app and check out Podcamp Media on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Instagram or TikTok, dealers choice on that one. So Kyle Brown, you're a marketer, a strategist with experience at Harley Davidson and Kohl's Corp and an award-winning home brewer and beer enthusiast. So thank you for joining us in this studio that you helped build not so long ago.


Kyle Brown:

You're welcome. Happy to be here.


Dusty Weis:

Happy to have you. You and I have hoisted a PBR or two together on more than one occasion. Tell me what kind of reputation does this beer have and who's their target demographic, would you say?


Kyle Brown:

Well, I think you called it out on the... It is a hipster, that kind of a trend and that's really what carried them through for a lot of the revival. PBR is an American iconic brand, and I say that for two reasons. So I think one, if you take away the brand of PBR and you just put the beer itself in a glass to someone with no context to American culture and put it up against any other beer, it wouldn't stand out. Not to the extent that it does. It wouldn't gain that following on its own.


Dusty Weis:

But Kyle, they won a blue ribbon.


Kyle Brown:

They won a blue ribbon 140 years ago and didn't take it to market until 120 years ago when that really blue ribbon stuck. It's a brilliant piece of marketing. In fact, some actually consider them a marketing company, not a beer company. The reason I say it's an American iconic brand, in 2010, they were pretty much out of business and they got bought out. Bought out by a company who buys American iconic brands. They joined the ranks of Twinky and Bumblebee Tuna. They got bought because someone recognized the value and the cult following and the market potential of what PBR stands for and what they can do with it.


Kyle Brown:

I've actually engaged with some of their people way in the past in prior years. They kind of approached it as the anti-marketing marketing. And that's their hipster, their kind of non-traditional standoffish and they do a great job of it. Their idea is to attract from the ground up, going out into these local bars, building it up. There's a reason you can go out to a bar today at least in the Milwaukee area and you can get a cigarette, a shot, a Jameson and a PBR for $5.


Dusty Weis:

Oh, I've been to that bar.


Kyle Brown:

I've come home with 19 cigarettes and that's kind of my day. I throw them out for someone else. But I think it's something that you think about. There is this excitement and it's kind of rugged. It's like the, you go out to a nice restaurant and you're still like, "No, I'm going to get a tallboy for $2.50." And that's kind of like a, it's like you're almost sticking it to the man in a way, even though that's not really what it is at all.


Dusty Weis:

Right, it's counterculture.


Kyle Brown:

It is counterculture.


Dusty Weis:

We don't buy into the marketing spin. We want things to be real. And that's where it kind of gets a little bit hazy because what are you really rebelling against when you're drinking a PBR?


Kyle Brown:

Yeah. And I think, and anytime you're trying to be counter, anytime you're trying to be different or not to say revolutionary, but to make change and to shake things up, it's not easy. And you're going to miss sometimes. And I think maybe miss a little far on this one.


Dusty Weis:

So where was it that the wheels came off for PBR and social media manager, Corey Smale? Well, right after new year's 2022, the Twitter account turned its punchy irreverence on the dry January trend that was all over social media at the time. If you're not familiar, this is the health and wellbeing movement toward abstaining from alcohol throughout the entire month of January. It's not for everyone, but it is picking up steam. I saw a survey that said 13% of Americans plan to stay dry in January, up from 11% last year. And when it comes to people trying to set boundaries for their relationship with alcohol, well, there's nothing wrong with that. Good for them. Who could possibly take issue with that?


Dusty Weis:

Except PBR's Twitter account did just that, asking, why does January have to be dry and going so far is to promote wet January with an absurdist piece of photoshopped art that featured dolphins and jet skis. And of course, some frosty glistening cans of PBR. This of course rankled the small, but vocal community of substance abuse recovery advocates on social media who piled onto the brand in Twitter replies and think pieces and eventually prompted Corey Smale to tweet out, not drinking this January? Try eating ass. David Griner is the international editor at AdWeek and host of the podcast, Yeah, That's Probably an Ad.


David Griner:

There's a directness to the tweet we're talking about of Pabst Blue Ribbon literally saying to eat ass. It's not padded. It's not hidden behind anything. It's not a veiled reference. It puts things out there so directly that I think it just got everyone's attention. And I think for those who are aware of what the brand's been doing in recent years, it wasn't necessarily surprising. But for those who are not aware and think of it from their grandpa drinking PBR, it probably took them by surprise.


Dusty Weis:

And I think there's a lot to that. And perhaps as we get a little bit deeper into this, this becomes one of the key I guess, pieces of evidence here as far as who is to blame.


Dusty Weis:

But first, a couple weeks after the story broke, Corey Smale, the offending tweeter, he did out himself on social media. And he's this sort of mid-career brand manager from St. Louis, sort of a goofy, affable guy from what I've been able to glean about him. But I wanted to talk to you about this because you and I both reached out to him for a comment right away and you got the exclusive. So what were your impressions when you talked to him?


David Griner:

Well, I've talked to Corey a few times in the past. What Pabst Blue Ribbon had been doing in recent years really got my attention well before this. And a lot of that was Corey's direct influence. Their social media had gotten really interesting. Just to give a quick example, I had a package show up in the mail once. It was just a brown box. It was filled with cans of the PBR hard coffee. And they weren't like well organized. They were just throwing half stamps into this box and then there was a little pig. And so I pull out the pig and it's a thumb drive. Like you take the head of the pig off and it's a thumb drive. So I posted a picture. I was like, "Should I put at this in my computer?" And everyone on the internet's like, "Absolutely not."


David Griner:

And so of course I put it into my computer and the file name, the name of the drive was do not open or do not play or something like that. And I opened it up and there's just a video file on it. And the video file was a new ad that they had made in partnership with a online video content creator for their hard coffee and that was it. And I love that stuff. And it's not so much about me getting cans of... which I probably still have not drank. It's just that that's fun. There's a weird Mr. Robot vibe to that I just, I really dug. And so I think he is a very different kind of marketer. He's a former entrepreneur, he's done a bunch of different stuff. He has never really fit in in the kind of corporatey marketing world. But yeah, I was aware of him through things like that and was fascinated to have that conversation about this tweet.


Dusty Weis:

You mentioned that it seems like he never really fit in in the world of marketing. And I think that's probably what made him so effective at what he did. I actually went back. I found another podcast appearance that he had done on a show that of all things is about ska punk music, if you're familiar with the genre.


David Griner:

I love ska punk music. So I should dig it back up.


Dusty Weis:

I come from that scene myself back in the day. And so he appeared on a show called In Defense Of Ska and they were talking to him because he was the Twitter brand manager for Pabst Blue Ribbon and had been tweeting about old Ska music. And at one point he said this on the podcast and it kind of cracked me up.


Corey Smale:

Brands suck. I mean, it's not tight, you know? But if you're going to market technically or whatever, like at least I think the best way to do it is just to be like self-aware.


Dusty Weis:

And I think that even though sort of this attitude, this outsider mentality wound up costing him his job eventually, I think that there's a lot of wisdom in what he says there.


David Griner:

Yeah. I mean, I think brands suck is the kind of thing I could easily picture. And I'm sure he has told me during our interview or at times it's just that there's a lot of frustration, not just with Corey, among a lot of, I say younger marketers, younger than me, but just this feeling that brands talk a big game about being polarizing, about being parts of the cultural conversation. And in the end, they're often cowardly, right? And they will pressure their marketing teams to really push the envelope. And then when you push it too hard, they'll come down on you.


David Griner:

And obviously that ended up happening in this specific case, but I would say it happens every day on smaller battles. Right? And so that frustration is when I think a lot of people feel, but most people have resigned themselves to it. Corey never resigned himself to it. I think he fought the good fight all the way up to the ass eating.


Dusty Weis:

Corey's work on social media had caught David's eye as well. Even in a brand Twitter ecosystem that's increasingly edgy and weird, David says PBR's Twitter account stood out as especially, especially-


David Griner:

There was a lot of mention of rats and it takes a bold brand to really associate itself with rats. Their fans were calling themselves PBR rats. There was a lot of rat centric content.


Dusty Weis:

And they had fans of this sort of thing.


David Griner:

Oh yeah, yeah. And they were kind of this edgier young audience that likes it. It's cheap and it's not bad. And they are doing a lot. They're doing some really interesting stuff with their product line. They're licensing out their name to a THC line of drinks. They're not a sleepy old brand that needed to be edgy just to stay alive. I think it was a sincere part of their evolution as a brand and finding new audiences.


Dusty Weis:

And so you had the rat stuff going on, you had just a lot of really goofy humor and sort of off the beaten path. I know Corey in that podcast interview that I referenced earlier, talked about getting very heavily into finger skateboarding, finger boarding?


David Griner:

Finger boarding, yeah.


Dusty Weis:

As a thing that they just went all in on. At the end of the day, it was stuff that got him excited and that's what made it authentic. And their audience got excited about it too.


David Griner:

Yeah. I'll say the coolest people I follow, and again, I'm a middle aged, boring suburban dad. So this is, it's a low bar to be a cool person I follow. But like the young people that I really look to as cultural barometers of marketing, of just where this industry is headed and should be headed, they loved what Pabst was doing these past few years. They loved seeing brands being unapologetic about reaching out to new audiences and embracing those audiences and having fun with it. Now it's a separate conversation of whether it went too far in the end, but up until then and to this day, I think he remains a folk hero. And if you look at any post that Pabst makes on social now, you're inevitably going to find the top comments are bring back the ass guy.


Dusty Weis:

Well, let's unpack this a little bit then, how he in the course of tiptoeing along the edge all these years finally slipped over it. And Corey said a few things in your Q&A after this all happened that really surprised me. But the most prominent and surprising to me was his repeated refusal to cast any blame whatsoever on PBR the company. He threw himself full upon the sword here, even if as he has on his social media, sort of cautiously embraced the folk hero worship that he's gotten from users who are still celebrating the eating ass tweet. Did that surprise you?


David Griner:

Well, I don't know if it surprised me. I certainly went into that conversation having no idea whether he was going to feel a victim, whether he would feel thrown under the bus. And in the end, it was very much the opposite of that. I think he showed a lot of personal ownership. The response to that interview was interesting, because some people felt that it was like he was reading a pre-recorded statement with a gun held to his head or that this was part of some negotiation. I certainly don't in any way think that's the case. I think it was incredibly sincere.


David Griner:

I think he spoke from his heart and I think he still has tremendous warmth and good feeling for the folks he worked with and takes personal accountability for the tweet that he wrote. And the fact that it had, and this is something that not enough people talk about it. And I'm sure I've been guilty of too, is that I used to run social media accounts for a living for major brands and for small brands. And the reality is every time you do something that's edgy or risky, it has an impact on everybody.


David Griner:

And Corey in his interview with me mentioned, there's people in accounting who love working for Pabst Blue Ribbon. And so when it's embarrassing, when they're suddenly put in an embarrassing position, they're the ones who have a hard time. They have to go home and answer those questions. Marketing is one thing. But when you're a distributor, when you work and everyone's going to be giving you a hard time about something you don't agree with or you don't support. I think that's what really hit him after the fact that comes across in that conversation. And I think it was sincere.


Dusty Weis:

I think it was definitely a sobering moment for him, no pun intended there. But there was another exchange that kind of raised my eyebrows too, where you asked him about the comment himself. And he said, "I didn't really tweet from a brand account about eating ass, but I did tweet from Pabst Blue Ribbon and it said eating ass." And in that sort of way, he's still owning it, but I thought it was just sort of an odd distinction to make. What do you think he was driving at there?


David Griner:

I think that he was trying to make just the basic point that he was not literally telling anybody to commit a sex act involving ass. I think there are certain people who do take things like that quite literally.


Dusty Weis:

Are there? You think there was somebody that looked at PBR's Twitter account and said, "They told me to commit a sex act."


David Griner:

Well, not so much in the like I took it as direction, so much as there are certain people who don't move in the worlds of internet language. Right? Who don't know that these kinds of jokes are incredibly commonplace. I have friends who make these jokes again, slightly younger than me, but this would not be off color commentary. You may not say it in an open Zoom in a workplace, but like it's a pretty common joke to reference in the way that someone... We would make jokes about orgies. Right? And no one's going to take it literally that you're saying go have an orgy this weekend. And so I think he was just trying to make the point that I don't know if he succeeded in this. I don't know if I'm succeeding in trying to draw that distinction, but in that interview, I just asked him, "Do you mean just metaphorically eating ass?" And he said, "Yeah." And I think that it is open to interpretation.


David Griner:

Since he kind of outed himself as the person behind that tweet and has embraced it, but I would say not in a way that feels overly gross, I think some people, as we all know, as we see constantly people either get canceled or they do something really deplorable and then they lean into it, right? They're like, "Well, okay, if I'm a fascist now, then I'm going to go full fascist." And in this case, it's someone who committed what I would call a victimless crime with a small asterisk there. He didn't tweet anything terrible about other people. And so to me, even when I saw it, I was like, "Oh, that's funny. But it doesn't really hurt body." I think where he crossed a line or whoever was tweeting it was in the replies, in the follow ups, because people expressed disagreement or whatever, raised some flags in the replies.


David Griner:

And the account shot back at them things like, why don't you ask your mom what eating ass is or things like that. That took it to a different place and makes it more negative. We didn't about that specifically, but I'm guessing he would probably agree with that, that that's a different tone and it just made it feel less light and less defensible for people like me. It's like talk about eating ass all you want on a brand account. I'm never going to complain. The next day, I think it's the next day that Grindr gay dating app literally tweeted the exact same tweet. The joke being that when they do it, no one's going to bat an eye. And since then, I think we've seen in several tweets where I have a hard time picturing that these tweets would've happened had that moment not occurred.


Dusty Weis:

Certainly. Well, and I think there's something to it too where I think he's probably at a place where he doesn't want to be branded forever as the eating ass PBR guy. Like he wants to have a career beyond eating ass. And it's funny, I actually just recently talked to Amy Brown who was running the Wendy's Twitter account when they famously blew up the internet by clapping back at someone who was complaining about their burgers.


Dusty Weis:

And this was something that she said to me too, where she's like, "Yeah, I've had to go out of my way in job interviews to demonstrate to people that I don't just do snarky Twitter. I have an entire marketing skillset." Is that something that you think he'll be able to escape as he's moving forward in his career here?


David Griner:

I think so. I mean, I think it will be his 15 minutes at least for a while in terms of what he is known at least via Google for. There's worse things to be known for. And again, he's walked this pretty commendable line of owning up to it without necessarily apologizing or going like, "I'm your guy. You want nothing but ass content, come to me." He's found an interesting thread in between that leans into more, this is part of who you will get with me is someone who really wants to push the envelope, but who also learned a lesson here.


David Griner:

And I will always continue to be there, but I'm probably going to be better about building consensus. So he and I didn't talk so much about asking permission or asking forgiveness so much as just building consensus. And that's what I think he's very direct that he feels he did not do enough of beyond a very small team at Pabst.


Dusty Weis:

Well, and that raises a really interesting point here because when you asked him in your Q&A about the process behind the Twitter account, whether the tweets had to be approved, what sort of oversight there was, he told you he didn't really want to get into it. Was that just him again, trying to sort of avert that blame onto himself? What do you think that process was?


David Griner:

It's hard to say. I mean, I wasn't per se surprised that he didn't want to go into that because I do think you start pointing blame at other people at that point. Right? And if you've decided to really take ownership of it, that's probably the last thing you want to do is to say, Well, Hey, I got to sign off." On a personal level, if I got fired after getting sign off on something, I would have a hard time not saying that.


Dusty Weis:

Right. Right. Right. Exactly.


David Griner:

But I do understand that it positions you publicly in a different, and I would argue worse way to be the kind of person who's out there saying, "Well yeah, I did this bold thing, but I'm not the only one." You might as well at that point just be the folk hero. And who knows, it may have been part of how they parted ways too. There may have been some agreement on the way out the door. I'm reading between lines, but I think there's a few motivations and there's really no good reason to delve into that stuff. So I wasn't particularly surprised.


Dusty Weis:

David says, there's no good reason to delve into it, but I'll add the contextual if you're AdWeek's international editor. If you're the host of a show where branding disasters are your bread and butter, well, we're going to delve.


Ska Podcast Host:

Did you ever send a tweet where you got a meeting and they said, "Please don't do this."


Corey Smale:

No.


Ska Podcast Host:

No, it's all good.


Dusty Weis:

Delve into the evidence on record to see who bears the blame, if there's even any blame to bear and how that blame eventually got portioned out.


David Griner:

I heard a lot of people use the phrase rogue employee at the time. I think the image that that probably conveys is not accurate at all.


Dusty Weis:

And that's coming up in a moment here on Lead Balloon. This is Lead Balloon and I'm Dusty Weis. Corey Smale ran PBR social media accounts with the implicit goal of connecting with followers by tiptoeing right up to the line, until he slipped across that line by tweeting for followers to try eating ass and was promptly fired. But if you listen back to the interview that he gave in the In Defense Of Ska podcast just before the ass eating incident, it's clear that his freewheeling style and unapologetic authenticity were an established practice under his tenure at Pabst.


Corey Smale:

We don't have no more agencies. We got rid of them. We just run the brand ordered like a merch table where it's like three or four of us and here's our shit. And then that allows us just transparency and then self-awareness to like build the brand. Like I said, on like a few different scenes where it's like, we're really in them, you know? And that's cool. We'll go from there.


Dusty Weis:

David Griner, the international editor at AdWeek who talked to Corey the week after he was fired says that's not necessarily a bad approach.


David Griner:

I mean, I can speak broadly from how accounts are often run. Again, having been involved, I ran brand accounts at an agency in the early days of social, but still, and I still have a lot of contacts throughout that industry now of social media. Not many are like Corey, very few are as unfiltered as the PBR account is. But my hunch is that he had a lot of autonomy and I think brands that give autonomy to their social managers to move in real time, to move quickly, to have fun and with a few guardrails, I think they tend to do the best versus the ones... The saddest ones are the ones who wait 72 hours to reply to a meme that's blowing out up and you're just like, "Oh, legal, finally signed off on that huh?"


David Griner:

And so like the correct answer is probably somewhere in between having rapid response legal, having rapid response management teams that understand why these things have to move so quickly. But I'm not surprised when I find that places seem to give autonomy to social managers, probably under a few specific things like, hey, don't mention binge drinking. But other than that, like again, I've worked in several regulated industries where they're like, "Just do not mention product benefits and you'll be fine. You can say whatever else."


Dusty Weis:

I do. I get the sense that this situation was very much like that except I don't think that they gave him that many guardrails. In fact, I'll pull up exhibit be here from the In Defense Of Ska podcast when they asked about that. This one runs kind of long. But I think it's really, really telling, they ask him about the process.


Ska Podcast Host:

I'm really fascinated by the current state of social media marketing by companies, because-


Corey Smale:

Let's go.


Ska Podcast Host:

I feel like even the most like Burger King or somebody it's like the most insane tweets or whatever, it's like what is going on in this world? So-


Corey Smale:

They still can't say fuck though.


Ska Podcast Host:

But you can.


Corey Smale:

They got to put a asterisk. Yeah.


Ska Podcast Host:

So do you have-


Corey Smale:

Look, let us be wild here. Let us be free. And they're like, "Okay."


Ska Podcast Host:

Yeah. Tell me a little about the behind the scenes conversation. What is the-


Corey Smale:

We're free.


Ska Podcast Host:

Did they just say like go, you know what to do or did they give you any parameters or?


Corey Smale:

No. I mean, at first it was like, this is what, but then I don't know. And also some people came and some people went and in that time, and I don't know, then things were like, oh, okay. And then like, we just started like having some numbers to like look at. And like statistically speaking, it was going good and continues to go good. So we're like, "Well, we'll just do more of this." And then at certain point I was like, "People stopped checking in on it. So it just is what it is now."


Ska Podcast Host:

Just no limit soldier.


Corey Smale:

Biting butts, no limit.


Ska Podcast Host:

Did you ever send a tweet where you got a meeting and they said, "Please don't do this."


Corey Smale:

No.


Ska Podcast Host:

No. It's all good.


Corey Smale:

Sometimes I did copyright. Oh, I mean, I'll be doing copyright stuff sometimes and JB our lawyer, he's so cool. He's like, "Bro you got to take it down." He's like, "You can't have Lunchables on there and cigarettes." And it's like, other than that though, no, not really. No. We're good.


Dusty Weis:

People stopped checking in on it.


David Griner:

There you go.


Dusty Weis:

And so when you hear a clip like that, I don't know about you, but I find it almost impossible to say, "Okay, well, the brand is completely faultless here. This was just an employee gone rogue who accidentally tiptoed over the line," when it sounds pretty clear from that that there were no lines ever dictated. They gave him cart blanche and said, "Go wild. Be free."


David Griner:

Yeah. I heard a lot of people use the phrase rogue employee at the time. I think the image that that probably conveys is not accurate at all. And I think we've all seen that that's the case. He was not a rogue employee. That implies like you were like, "I'm going to really damage my employer."


Dusty Weis:

I'm going to get him. Yeah.


David Griner:

Yeah. I'm going to subvert and commit this suicide from within. That's not what happened. It was in line. And this is where early on again, I was maybe slow to the realization of how serious it was going to be. Just well, I don't know about serious, but you know, how consequential it was going to be because I was like, "Yeah, they tweet. I mean, they post stuff all the time and it's wild." And to me, affiliating rats with your product is a lot riskier than telling people to eat ass. Like maybe not medically, they're probably one to one, but like-


Dusty Weis:

Probably about the same risk of disease there. Yeah. Okay.


David Griner:

But you know what I mean is like I was, again, as someone who's worked on the marketing side, who's seen what truly concerns brands and the reality is there's two things. One is anything that creates doubt about the safety and the purity or whatever you want to call it of product, that's something you tend to avoid. And they had some fun walking that line. Right? And then the other one is decency, which is a much more vague thing and that's where they clearly even for Pabst hit a wall.


David Griner:

But yeah, I definitely don't think he was a rogue employee. I think he had very, very wide parameters and had had a pretty great track record of engaging this widening community. I think probably just lost sight of the fact that Pabst as a mainstream brand has a pretty diverse audience out there and some of them are still going to get upset.


Dusty Weis:

Is it fair do you think for Corey to be the only one who takes the fall here?


David Griner:

I don't know what's fair. I think he'll be fine. I think he'll have a strong career. I think if I felt this was career ending, then I might have some opinions on that. But really, to me, I'm just like, "You know, it probably was largely him." I get a lot of autonomy in my job and I can certainly imagine that I could take that too far one day. And that puts my bosses in a really tough spot of should they have kept a tighter grip on me that whole time? I don't know. For now I really appreciate it. But when you do an episode on my collapse later, we'll revisit it.


Dusty Weis:

As long as you're willing to go on record with me at that point. That'll be just fine.


David Griner:

No promises. I may be in a bunker somewhere.


Dusty Weis:

Right, right. What about PBR here? I mean, are there any long term implications for the brand here or are they going to be just fine? I think they move on from this pretty quick. Right?


David Griner:

They'll be fine. I think that Twitter is always a very small bubble and I think it's understandable to freak out over things that happen on Twitter, but it's such an insignificant little piece. It did generate headlines.


Dusty Weis:

But also Twitter never forgets. You yourself mentioned that people are calling for the ass tweeter to be brought back.


David Griner:

That's where I think, yeah. It's my long term... Well, I mean, I don't know about long term. Midterm consequence here for the brand is that it derailed their ability to commit on a certain level of earnestness into the wild side. I know it's weird to say earnestly wild, but like they lost that crowd's love and support that Corey generated. Probably not a gigantic aspect of their overall drinking audience, but it's going to make their posts look weird for quite a while because people are going to keep referencing the ass guy. And so they'll get past that. We're in like this weird third era of Pabst. There will be a fourth era. There will probably be 17 eras. And so they'll be all right.


Dusty Weis:

As long as they're still supporting the Ska scene, I'm here for it. Seeing how this story played out here in 2022, do you think that an edgy Twitter account is still something to which any brand should aspire or is this a cautionary tale?


David Griner:

It's a cautionary tale in the sense that it showed brand managers or whoever, social managers that they need to have consensus, that they need to make sure that they are not being left out there on their own, which again can feel empowering, but can also get pulled out from under you very quickly. I think just since then, we've had several incidences of brands really pushing the envelope. I mean, Adidas just tweeted 25 pairs of bare breasts from their account and then promoted it as a paid ad. I mean, it was polarizing. I really liked it as a great point about diversity of body type, a lot more impactful than just showing people wearing bras.


David Griner:

But you know, those kinds of moments I think build on each other. I doubt anyone involved with that tweet's like "Thank God that ass eating tweet went out so that we can justify this." It's a very different thing, but they build on each other, right? And you've got brands being willing to try a little harder each time knowing where the line is and still towing it as much as they can.


Dusty Weis:

When you look at this story here, we mentioned it as a cautionary tale, what lessons should a young brand marketer take from this as they're, I don't know if they're looking to follow in Corey's footsteps, but looking to succeed and thrive in that space?


David Griner:

It's always been a challenge to be the kind of marketer, social manager or whatever who is trying to push those limits. And those people are incredibly important. Not brand needs them of course, but you know, some do. And I think that's an incredible role. It takes a lot of bravery and a lot of boldness, but these kinds of incidents end up hurting those folks in ways while also helping them. It codifies this conversation. It's no longer a hypothetical. Like what would happen if a major brand tweeted about eating ass? Well, now we know what happens and we know the consequences and we know how that news cycle will go.


David Griner:

It's much harder when a client says, "Well, has anyone done this? What's going to happen? What could we do?" And so I think they will probably take away from this, I need to have enough consensus to not get hung out to dry if this doesn't go poorly. And I used to be an ask forgiveness not permission kind of person. I've changed in the sense that much like Corey, as I've gotten older, I've realized that that hurts people unintentionally. You create collateral damage where other people are embarrassed by a decision you made, where you were like, "I'm going to just do what I think we should do."


David Griner:

As an example AdWeek, I think kind of like one of the quotes you played earlier, we don't asterisk obscenities. If we need to say fuck in a headline, we say fuck in a headline. It's rare. It's not like we do it for shock value, but we do it for accuracy. And when a brand says something... Like we can't be more limited in our language than our own audience is. Because then you just look like-


Dusty Weis:

You look like somebody's grandma.


David Griner:

Yeah. And so while I think a lot of people might say decency and let's not... We're marketers. It's a foul mouthed business and we can't be any more restrictive in our own language than other marketers. That said, I don't want to put fuck in a headline and not run it by other people, especially like the writer or I always make sure everyone's on board with that. It's like, "Hey, we're doing this. It might get some pushback. It almost certainly will." And then so far I've never had someone say, "No, don't." But it's one of those things where I would feel bad if I put it out there and then someone was like, "I can't believe you did that." And they didn't know it had even been done. A lot of people probably found out about the ass eating tweet, not from Corey or anyone. They probably found out about it from other people online.


Dusty Weis:

So as David points out, Corey Smale was willing to fall on the sword for PBR over the ass eating tweet. But did he have to? Did anyone have to? Kyle Brown, our beer marketing correspondent went back and listened to another clip from the In Defense Of Ska podcast with me, particularly listening to Corey Smale talk about his job title, his team and how they had been tasked with doing their work. And when you listen to Corey here, I think it's pretty obvious that nobody who worked with him could say they didn't know what is up to.


Ska Podcast Host:

Are you the head of marketing?


Corey Smale:

No.


Ska Podcast Host:

No. Okay. So you're the head of social. What is your title anyways?


Corey Smale:

I'm the brand manager of creative and communication. Okay. So the Pabst Blue Ribbon marketing team. Four people. My boss, head of marketing. Me, all everything that you see or hear or look at from PBR. Rachel, all the product, everything you drink from PBR. Shamus, everything, culture, all the merchandise. Everything you wear or experience in real life from PBR. That's it.


Ska Podcast Host:

Got it. Okay.


Corey Smale:

We had an agency. We had a couple of them, big ones, expensive ones. We don't have them anymore. We just be working with our friends and it's going pretty good.


Ska Podcast Host:

When did you dump the agency?


Corey Smale:

This year.


Ska Podcast Host:

This year? Okay.


Corey Smale:

Yeah. And that wasn't that long ago. And then we just been doing one off. I'm not speaking disparagingly. I don't mean to present it like that. We basically would just do like one off at this point though. Like the brand just moves it like it moves quick. Because when it is that small, it is like being in a band where like everyone has their job. You know what I mean? Because it's small and nimble and shit, it just requires that level of care even from like an agency or a creative partner or whatever, you know? It's like, we're ready to like grind.


Dusty Weis:

"It's like being in a band," he says. Everybody's got their job and they just grind. So Kyle, hearing what we've heard from David Griner at AdWeek, just now from Corey Smale himself, what do you make of the approach that they employed at PBR toward marketing? Does this sound like an operation that you would want to be a part of?


Kyle Brown:

Yeah. In a lot of ways. I mean the freedom, the creativity, the just go out and make it happen. I think there's a lot to be said about having just a small autonomous team. That's creative expression and freedom at its prime.


Dusty Weis:

100%. You tell old stories about your dad when he was a marketer and in the early days, not the early days, the middling days of Harley Davidson and just sort of some of the creative, random things that they got to do there. It almost, it seems like a really similar setup.


Kyle Brown:

Yeah. I mean, for them, it was relatively small. Well, very small compared to what they are now. And they said, "Hey, we got to do a photo shoot." So someone grabbed a camera and they went out on a photo shoot. They actually filmed an entire year's catalog riding around the office with backdrops of like the lake and a bridge and Miller brewing. They just drove into the lot behind trucks. It's fun. And constraint and limitations, that is what sparks creativity.


Kyle Brown:

Blank slate, a billion dollars, yeah sure, you're going to go make some ad. But you put those constraints in there and that's when the creative happens. And I think for a lot of marketers, especially the ones who are more focused on the creative side, they love those moments. When they pull something together on a shoestring budget, gorilla marketing, it's fun to be the little guy sometimes. You get to punch above your weight and there's not a lot of people who are going to hold your feet to the fire, unless you start tweeting about eating ass.


Dusty Weis:

And that brings us to I think the jury verdict moment in this story. David kind of arrived at the conclusion that PBR took the right approach to managing its social media manager and I think I agree with him. I think that you have to be able to give your people the freedom to do what they need to do. You have to be able to give them that level of trust. But then Corey slipped over a line and the blame is mostly on him. Do you agree with that?


Kyle Brown:

No, I don't. If you're allowed to drop an F bomb on your social media, but oh, eating ass, that's the line you crossed. I don't buy it. They're playing with comedy. They're playing with kind of poking the bear. That's risky. Comedians fail all the time. It's the only reason they go on tour is to test and really work on that material. They fail a lot. So to expect that without accepting there's going to be some misses and some failure, that's not fair. You don't fire your broker every time one of your stocks drops 10 points. It's just part of the game. It's an accepted, calculated risk. It's not like the executives and the people overseeing this have been looking at their Twitter and social account for the last five years and going, "Totally safe, not an ounce of risk."


Kyle Brown:

They knew what they were doing. And I feel like this is a scapegoat. I feel like this is them trying to just clean their hands, walk away from it and not take accountability. I think they could have turned it around. I think they could have just said, "Wow, we really screwed up." It wasn't the worst thing. It didn't make sense to me. I didn't get it. It's like, you're at a party with your group of friends or maybe in the office and you say a joke that in your head makes sense, but there's like four dots you didn't connect for everybody else. It's like, 'Oh yeah, that wasn't funny. My bad."


Dusty Weis:

Moving on.


Kyle Brown:

Moving on.


Dusty Weis:

Moving on. Next joke.


Kyle Brown:

Yeah. You know, it's a tweet.


Dusty Weis:

I don't think the guy needed to be fired over it. I think maybe you call him into the lawyer's office. You give him a little wag of the finger and you say, "Hey man, we really like what you've done for the most part. This one thing, kind of too far." Now we don't know what kind of politics were going on in the back office. Maybe he had been rubbing people the wrong way for a long time and this was just the inciting incident that allowed them to finally drop the axe on him. But I get the sense that they just felt because of their shareholders, because of an executive, because of somebody out there, that there had to be a sacrificial lamb, that somebody had to get fired here and I think he was just the guy. I think Corey Smale got hung out to dry on this one. I really do.


Kyle Brown:

Yeah, I think so. This guy made a dumb joke. And by dumb, I mean, it just wasn't funny, and he lost his job for it. I get from a company they're trying to wipe their hands, get clean of it. Deleting a tweet is a pretty good way to say you're guilty. I would've led into it. Like fall on the sword and have fun with it. Look at the last five years, look at the last year, how many stupid things have been said on Twitter and I can't remember any of them.


Dusty Weis:

Right. The ecosystem recycles so-


Kyle Brown:

Some other idiot is going to say something.


Dusty Weis:

You just have to ride it out until that happens.


Kyle Brown:

Absolutely.


Dusty Weis:

You know, I make the argument that if you engage in edgy brand Twitter, that you can be 99.9% accurate and 99.9% of your jokes land on the right side of the line. But if you really are trying to tiptoe right up to that line, eventually there is going to come a moment when you slip over that line. And so I think that the onus is on managers, is on executives, is on the people who make the strategic calls to decide, well, do we really want to engage in edgy brand Twitter? Because if we do, we will eventually one way or the other slip over the line a little bit. And so I would posit that it is an act of cowardice to fire the guy who's got his fingers on the Twitter for that.


Kyle Brown:

I would say it also sends a very risky message to everyone else within that. I mean, I guess the other three people, as we heard that still work in marketing there, but just in general. Failure cannot be labeled as just bad. I mean yeah, you don't want to fail, but if you're not failing, you're not trying. And you're certainly for a brand that's trying to be edgy, you're going to have to make a few mistakes along the way.


Kyle Brown:

PBR is creating a culture where you make a mistake and you're fired and I get the level of it. And if you're in accounting and you make a mistake, no one knows about it. It's just an internal thing that happens. But that's not healthy. That's not going to help them grow as a company. It's not going to help them retain the people they need. I really wonder if this impacted their sales at all.


Dusty Weis:

I am almost certain that this did little to impact their sales. And after Corey was sacrificed on the altar that their shareholders probably were just fine with it too. I highly doubt that there are long term repercussions for PBR as a brand here.


Kyle Brown:

Yeah. I'll admit, I probably haven't Googled PBR more in my life than in the last two months. So-


Dusty Weis:

That's a W. That's a W from where I'm sitting.


Kyle Brown:

Hey Corey, you got me.


Dusty Weis:

There we go.


Kyle Brown:

You won.


Dusty Weis:

Well, Kyle Brown, marketer, strategist, Lead Balloon's beer marketing correspondent, thank you for joining us once again and lending us your expertise in this studio that you helped build with your bare, burly, hairy masculine arms, which by the way looks great man.


Kyle Brown:

Thank you, sir. Thank you.


Dusty Weis:

Thank you for showing up and doing some carpentry with us.


Kyle Brown:

Happy to be here.


Dusty Weis:

Yeah. Yeah, absolutely.


Kyle Brown:

Cheers.


Dusty Weis:

Cheers, man. Thanks. That is going to do it for this episode of Lead Balloon. Thanks as well to David Griner, international editor of AdWeek, the industry leading publication which as you may recall, named us as marketing podcast of the year in 2020. And yes, I'm still beating that drum. We've got a new thing that we're trying here on Lead Balloon called the comms gripes line. We've all got pet peeves in this business. I for one can't stand how often people misuse the word utilize when what they clearly mean is use. And so if you've got a gripe, hit the link in the show description and let her fly just like Ben did.


Ben:

I can't stand when a brand either through marketing of product or marketing the brand puts how I should feel or how the brand represents an emotion in the title. Great example is quality in hotels. Don't tell me it's a quality hotel by the name. I mean, it's a quality hotel by how you treat me, how you show up and the customer experience that you create. You should not have to tell me how to feel in your brand name. Save that for how you deliver your product.


Dusty Weis:

Ben demonstrating perfectly there what I've long referred to as the Yummy Buffet axiom. Yummy Buffet, a Chinese place on campus at the University of Wisconsin back when I was a student, which could more accurately have been described as the salmonella sampler. Actually hold on a second. Okay. Yep. Cursory Google search shows me that Yummy Buffet is probably no longer in business with their 1.3 stars on Yelp. And my likelihood of getting sued seems pretty low. So I'm going to leave that last bit in.


Dusty Weis:

So thank you Ben for your gripe. And to you dear listener, I'd love to hear from you on the comms gripe line. Hit the link in the show notes and leave me a voice message. Lead Balloon is produced by Podcamp Media, where we provide branded podcast production solutions for businesses. Our new podcast studios are located in the heart of beautiful downtown Milwaukee, Wisconsin, home of Pabst Blue Ribbon originally.


Dusty Weis:

But we work with brands all over North America. Check on our website podcampmedia.com. Larry Kilgore III on some segment editing for this episode. Please follow or subscribe to the show on your favorite podcast app if you haven't already and check out Podcamp Media on the social form of your choice. Until the next time folks, thanks for listening. I'm Dusty Weis.



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