Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Exit to ale, reprise

If you believe Toll Road News, there’s some frowning at the Woodbridge headquarters of the New Jersey Turnpike over Flying Fish and its Exit Series beers. If that’s the case, then the Turnpike Authority should lighten up.

From a chat with Gene Muller, Flying Fish’s president, it seems the fuss is a little overblown, but not without a PR dividend for the brewery. The static comes from fears over the potential for assumptions, albeit erroneous, that the Turnpike is behind the beer.

That’s funny, since Flying Fish doesn’t use the word turnpike on its labels or related Web site. And you can't get an Exit beer at the Molly Pitcher rest stop, nor an Exit 4 T-shirt anywhere but Flying Fish.

Also, the brewery isn't infringing on any trademarks. (You can’t trademark that highway-sign color of green; nor can you trademark the word exit; the shape of the Turnpike’s sign is trademarked, however.)

In the grand scheme of things, this is about the New Jersey Turnpike as iconography and pop culture. The Flying Fish series is an homage to something distinctly New Jersey. And last we checked, the Exit Series celebrates that slice of Jerseyana; it does not mock it, like so many comedians and a recent headline in Draft Magazine.

Still, in the face of all this gear grinding, the brewery’s Web site for the Exit Series now features a disclaimer now (pictured; click to enlarge).

Any authority concerns about drinking and driving were met with the reply that Flying Fish folks don’t condone drinking and driving (they never have; nor does any Jersey micro or pub brewery), and that they drive the same roads as everyone else.

(The dim view of roads and beer or wine or liquor mentioned in the same breath is a knee-jerk association to DUI, a propensity to see a dark side. The thinking person knows better, knows it's not fait accompli. It's unfortunate and makes you wonder when you consider this: Five years ago, Buena Vista Township in Atlantic County temporarily changed the name of its mint-growing section of Richland to Mojito. Why? Because Bacardi gave the town 5 grand for the promotion, and got a mojito sign along Route 40, the main highway through town. Last we checked, a mojito was made not with just mint, but rum, too. And this event went over with not a hubub, but feature stories written about it. Go figure.)

Gene did suggest the Turnpike shouldn’t be spending money on lawyers to swat at a small, taxpaying business. (A lawyer contacted the brewery to press the authority's concerns; there's no cease and desist notice that we know of.) Tolls pay the Turnpike’s bills; who needs a toll hike because the Turnpike Authority took a wrong turn down a legal dead-end?

In the long run, all of this attention proves beneficial for Flying Fish. Exit 11, the second installament of the series, is due out soon. News media from the surrounding region have been working the story. (Update: Channel 4 in New York did a somewhat dour turn on the dispute on the 6 o'clock news. Their written version has a lame headline pun.)

A day in the slow lane for the news outlets perhaps, but a grand avenue of exposure for the beer.

One final word: We’ve dealt with Joe Orlando from the Turnpike Authority, going back to our AP days. And while the Turnpike Authority's concerns are understandable, the tone and disparaging remarks in the Toll Road News story seem out of character. Even on the worst of days, i.e. bad news coming out of the Turnpike, Joe was always helpful and candid, never coarse. Hence, some doubts about Toll Road News.


JessKidden said...

The "Toll Roads - Flying Fish" story got a lot of reaction over on Beer Advocate and claims of emails to the NJTA by some. Like you, I found the comments by the "spokesperson" to be suspect, official spokespersons are usually much more "diplomatic" (almost to the other extreme of saying nothing) in their speech.

One supposes the correction, labeled "Addition" dated 6/16 is, in part, a reaction to some of the replies.

My first thought re: the quote "We don't believe that a government agency should be tied in with alcohol," was "Gee, what's a beer cost at the NJTA-owned facility formerly known as Garden State Arts Center?"

Jeff Linkous said...

There's probably an undercurrent to the Turnpike Authority's response, namely the fear of MADD crashing down on them like a load of bricks, with a state senator in tow, for not taking a position, whether a token one or a full-court press.

Also, the Turnpike Authority probably THINKS it has to react because it's the social norm to react when beer, wine or liquor get near something associated with driving. No one gets to use their brain, parse the nuance and see another side.

That's the misfortune of living in an era when everything gets dumbed down.

As for the Arts Center, it's run by concert promoter Live Nation, but indeed is owned by the Turnpike Authority and sells cheap beer at an extortionate, event-concession markup. It got caught flatfooted a year or two back with underage drinking in the parking lot. That's probably another reason the authority thinks it needs to be nervous.

JessKidden said...

Maybe someone in the transportation department of Anheuser-Busch in Newark should call up the Authority and say, "Gee, we read where you don't want to be tied in with alcohol and wonder if that means you'd rather we start using local highways or the federal Interstates rather than pay the Turnpike tolls? We know the guys at MillerCoors, too, and I'm sure they'd be happy to oblige, as well."