The "Tea-KO" memed 'round the world

On Twisted Tea's unexpected virality, and who gets to cash in on the free publici-tea

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This past year was a parade of reminders that the world is cruel and bleak and above all, not fucking fair. Jeff Bezos super-sized his fortune on the pandemic-strained backs of exploited Amazon workers. The Oxycontin-pushing Sackler billionaires evaded prison for the opioid crisis they both fueled and profited from. Everyone in the Trump cabal, including the big boy himself, got COVID-19 but were all pretty much fine thanks to state-of-the-art medical care that 350,000 dead Americans couldn’t access.

And of course, this was the year when swarms of Americans took to the streets to demand that police face consequences for killing Black people with de facto impunity, which they (for the most part) have not. As far as justice goes, 2020 didn’t have a lot to spare.

But then, on Christmas Eve at a convenience store in an Ohio city hard by the shores of Lake Erie, something happened. Something that showed justice can prevail in this nightmare world; that Good does occasionally win the upper hand in its unending battle with Evil; that in the face of extraordinary grotesques, decency will carry the day, if only ordinary people will hold fast on the path of righteousness.

I’m talking, of course, about…

The Great Tea-KO of Christmas Eve 2020

If you’re on social media, you’ve almost certainly seen the video above. But if this is new to you… well, as a lapsed English major, your fearless Fingers editor feels more than qualified to analyze the perfectly calibrated, malt beverage-based three-act story arc on offer from this vital piece of Rust Belt cinéma vérité. To wit:

  1. SET-UP: On Christmas Eve, an agitated white dude with no mask and a calm-looking, masked Black guy arrive at the checkout counter of a Circle K in Elyria, OH. Presumably they were both there to purchase goods, sundries, and cookies for Santa.

  2. CONFLICT: The white dude began calling the Black guy slurs and obscenities and trying to provoke him into a fight, yelling “smack me, n-----.”

  3. RESOLUTION: The Black guy, who appeared to just want to buy his tallboy of Twisted Tea and leave, finally grew tired of the taunts, and used said tallboy to crack the his opponent forcefully in the face. Then he took the antagonist to the ground, delivering body blows.

Offscreen, a woman jeered. “Yeah, you got yours buddy.” Exit, pursued by a bear.

A meme is born

The full backstory that led to this punishing bout of cosmic scale-balancing may never be fully known. A local news outlet reported that no charges were filed, and the Circle K clerk on-hand for the event declined to comment. The auteur of the video—which at press had already racked up nearly 5M views on YouTube and countless millions on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, et al.—has not come forward.

The victor of the “fight,” if you can even call it that, is one Barry Allen, aka Mr. Tea/Tea-KO. He made an appearance on local streaming network called Mark One Sports this past week to tell his side of the story. (Allen wasn’t immediately available for an interview with Fingers, but I’m working on lining one up.)

[Update 1/15/20: Read my full interview with Allen at VinePair now!]

His c-store tormentor, on the other hand, has neither been identified nor heard from. It’s hard to imagine the unnamed white guy would have an explanation that would make this something other than what looks like, though, and what it looks like is he got brained with a can of Twisted Tea for being racist.

In the absence of exculpatory evidence, we have no choice but to take this incident at for the wonderful gift that it is. Addled all year by an excruciating election, an isolating pandemic, and newly enflamed disgust over America’s white supremacist past and present, Mr. Tea’s Triumph in Elyria delivered the internet a brief spot of justice—and a poignant, cathartic, and utterly versatile new meme.

You’ve probably seen plenty of these on your feed over the course of the past few days, so I won’t bother aggregating them here. The musical remixes in particular made me nostalgic for the Trump-is-actually-gonna-be-president days of January 2017, when far-right haircut Richard Spencer got absolutely smoked in the kisser by a black bloc protester, and Twitter maestros promptly scored the video with all manner of banger soundtracks. (“The Boys Are Back In Town” by Thin Lizzie matched up especially well.)

Ah, how young we were. Good, good times. Anyway, back to late 2020. Or should I say… late twenty-twen-tea? (I should not.)

“People are gonna buy it just for the LOLs”

Earlier this year, Bud Light Seltzer conducted an entire marketing campaign predicated on this thesis, “hiring” a young “chief meme officer” to help it make better snackable content for The Youths. It was a cheap publicity ploy, and it worked. But Bud Light Seltzer’s buy-in on the idea also revealed just how vital memes have become to marketing booze to Gen Z.

“I think it does legitimize this industry” of meme creation, Know Your Meme associate editor Zach Sweat told me at the time.

The Twisted Tea video has absolutely gone viral. Even more crucially, it’s inspired thousands upon thousands of memes in its image. Data from CrowdTangle and TalkWalker—so-called “social listening” softwares that monitor social media platforms and measure what users are talking about there—indicate that terms like #TwistedTea and “Twisted Tea” saw massive upticks in interest.

On Twitter, Twisted Tea was trending dramatically ahead of White Claw in terms of engagement, reach, and even sentiment—remarkable given that brand’s durable popularity amongst the very-online:

On TikTok, the preferred video-sharing app of Gen Z and therefore a must-win digital arena for any FMB brand hoping to reach the next generation of drinkers, users’ original #twistedtea riffs have done a combined 84M views; the Twisted Tea brand doesn’t even have an account on the platform.

Of course, social chatter alone does not a six-pack sale make. But there’s reason to expect at least some late-year spike in Twisted Tea revenue, posited Bryan D. Roth, reporter and scan-data sorcerer for the beer industry publication Good Beer Hunting. Twisted Tea, he tweeted, “[w]as on trajectory for 25-30% growth in 2020, and all these memes are gonna turn into a lot of joke-buying to end the year, but sales are sales, after all.”

Andrés J. Muñoz Rodriguez, a craft beer industry communications consultant with a master’s degree in public relations, agreed: Twisted Tea will probably get a legitimate sales boost out of all this free publicity, albeit a hard one to track. “Brand awareness is so important,” he told Fingers. Memes are a vital medium for any brand who wants younger generations to know about their product, he continued, and the memes from Allen’s Elyria incident choked social-media timelines for a few crucial, boozy days with doctored images of the FMB’s instantly recognizable bright-yellow can.

“The name ‘Twisted Tea’ is on everyone’s minds right now, so if you’re in the store… people are gonna buy it just for the LOLs,” said Rodriguez.

Free publici-tea

In a Facebook post on December 29th, Allen asked his newfound followers to help him get in touch with Twisted Tea, writing “I feel like they owe me a commercial!” On a Twitter account run by his wife, he laid out his take on the ethics of monetizing the Tea-KO: “For anyone saying I’m capitalizing and branding the situation, you damn straight as the next movement!”

It’s not just for him, either. Allen told interviewers that he has five kids, and his wife, Nicole Oliver, confirmed to Fingers that the family has been trying to raise money via GoFundMe to buy a wheelchair-accessible van for their 6 year-old son, who suffers from a gene mutation. (In his radio interview, Allen also plugged his Venmo handle; it’s @MrTea2020.)

Deserving though he may be, it remains to be seen whether Twisted Tea will get behind their unexpected, unofficial frontman. After all, it’s not every day that the entire internet is talking about Twisted fucking Tea, and Allen singlehandedly made it so. But given the racism and violence that underpin the video’s broad appeal, that conversation is happening in a decidedly un-#brandfriendly context.

Via DM, Oliver told me that they have made efforts to contact the brand but have not heard back. Neither the brand, nor PR reps for Boston Beer Company (which owns Twisted Tea, as well as Samuel Adams, Truly, and other brands), responded to my requests for comment before deadline.

Rodriguez, a co-founder of Fermentum PR, has no relationship with Twisted Tea or BBC, but with his PR training and deep familiarity with the online beer industry discourse, he’s well-positioned to explore the brand’s predicament.

I asked Rodriguez to do just that—consider, from a PR perspective, the pros/cons of Twisted Tea deliberately drafting off this video’s popularity.

“They can’t really endorse the video itself, not even because of the n-word being used—although that’s obviously” a problem, he told Fingers. “But the real reason is it's a violent video. You can’t really go around [with the message] ‘yeah, go beat people with our cans!’” Even when provoked by overt racism, marketing products around the premise of conflict is a no-fly-zone for all but the most aggressive/bloodthirsty brands. (Rodriguez mused that a company like Ultimate Fighting Championship, with its emphasis on hand-to-hand combat, might be more willing to position its brand adjacent to this sort of video.)

Plus, if Twisted Tea did try to align with the Tea-KO—whether by putting direct ad spend behind it on social platforms, or stunt-hiring Allen, or even just contracting an influencer network like Doing Things Media to launder pro-Tea memes via its accounts on their behalf—it would run another risk: alienating racists who like Twisted Tea. “At the end of the day, everyone’s dollar is green,” said Rodriguez.

It’s an unsavory and cynical calculus, particularly for a fun-loving FMB brand with friendly colors and a flip-flop vibe. But bang-for-buck gas-station booze is a very common denominator in these United States, a considerable population of which is racist as hell. It only stands to reason that bigoted palates would enjoy the saccharine embrace of Twisted Tea as much as tolerant ones.

Consider White Claw. As I’ve reported for Fingers and elsewhere, the hard seltzer’s broad popularity has earned it a place not only in frat coolers and former wine moms’ fridges, but also in the tactical vests of far-right extremists like the Proud Boys and anti-establishmentarian boogaloo gunmen. “They’ve done nothing wrong,” said Rodriguez sympathetically of White Claw. “They didn’t come out and be like ‘we’re going to be the drink of choice of the alt-right,’ that just kind of happened.”

Which, fine. But to your Fingers editor, the moral case (if not the legal or financial one) is way more cut-and-dried for Twisted Tea than White Claw. The video, and subsequent memes based on it, mostly position the yellow-and-blue tallboy as a hammer of righteousness. They’re already getting positive press! By booking Allen for a commercial, Twisted Tea could cement itself as the FMB of choice for anti-racists everywhere, and put some money in the pocket of a guy who a) appears he could really use it; and b) seems to genuinely enjoy their product.

Plus, according to GBH’s Roth, they sold $530M worth of Twisted Tea in 2020 alone, so like… throw Barry a bag!

Would it piss off some white supremacists? For sure! Is aligning an alcohol brand with street violence a potential liability? Almost certainly! But like: chat shit, get banged, racists! Here’s a Twisted Tea *extremely Rob Riggle voice* IN THE FACE!!!

“YEAR OF THE TEA”

I’m just a humble boozeletter editor, not a lawyer or an FMB marketing brain-genius. I acknowledge that this may not be the most commercially prudent course of action. But Rodriguez hypothesized that if Twisted Tea wanted to, it could walk a slightly more narrow path: condemning violence in any form while also affirming its commitment to a more racially just society.

“They could say, ‘We’re donat[ing] X amount of sales for the next several months to [a] charity that's pro-civil rights, against racism, et cetera, et cetera,” he offered. “So they're basically riding the coattails of [the video] without actually fully endorsing it. Like ‘Don't be racist… but don't go punching people in the face either.”

That sounds pretty good to me. And it would also square with the brand’s own stated values regarding racial justice, which it spelled out explicitly in June 2020 following the killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis.

So far, though, Twisted Tea has opted to remain mum on the Mr. Tea’s Elyria Tea-KO. As far as I know, the closest they’ve come to acknowledging the incident and its viral aftermath is this tweet posted on New Year’s Day:

It’s likely that this post was created and scheduled a week ago, and has nothing to do with what went down on Christmas Eve in that Ohio Circle K. But if you wanted to read this as Twisted Tea’s way of subtly winking at the situation without explicitly addressing it, I suppose you could. Plenty of people clearly did: Brand Posts™ like this don’t get this sort of engagement, especially not on one of the most hangover-prone mornings of the year.

Either way, it’s a win for the brand. But it doesn’t quite do Mr. Tea’s Tea-KO justice.

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