It seems like it would be pretty hard to go wrong with bottled water branding. Put a hibiscus on the label, have a majestic stag standing on your logo, or even can it and sell it with the message that it’s actually the most hardcore thing you can drink. But a relatively new bottled water called Ounce has angered an entire Brooklyn neighborhood by making its packaging look more than a little like a 40-oz. bottle of malt liquor, while simultaneously trying to sell it with hip hop-influenced imagery.
Ounce was founded in 2015 by Sons of Anarchy actor Theo Rossi and his wife, Meghan, and its slogan—GET OUNCED!—is also the most unintentionally hilarious tagline since eternal temp Ryan Howard shouted “WUPHF!” directly into the camera. But Ounce’s arrival in Canarsie, Brooklyn, has been met with pushback from local activists and residents, including some who have described it as like putting “candy corn in a crack vial.”
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams has also asked Ounce to maybe reconsider how they’re presenting their product—and what they’re perhaps unwittingly selling. “The tone-deaf ‘#40Ounce’ marketing is cultural appropriation at its worst,” he tweeted. “Branding that plays off the imagery of 40-ounce malt liquor is an insult to communities fighting for a healthier future. @GetOunced should know better, and I urge them to rebrand.”
The New York Daily News reports that activists from the New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) and Breukelen RISE have also complained about the bottles, successfully getting one supermarket manager to remove it from his store. “In a community that has been ravaged by alcohol and drugs, we are confused as to why someone would create a product that so closely resembles a malt liquor bottle,” Breukelen RISE members wrote in a letter to Ounce. “We cannot get behind this product staying on the shelves in our community.”
One longtime resident of the Breukelen Houses told the Daily News that no one in her family would be allowed to drink water from one of Ounce’s 40s. “It’s the same as play cigarettes. It’s grooming,” she said. “It’s precursor to making you comfortable holding that bottle.”
Despite some pretty compelling arguments—and some pretty obvious similarities—Rossi insists that the bottles weren’t designed to look like 40s of anything but water. In a four-part Instagram video, he says that he just wants to help people drink more water, because he believes that’s partially what helped him to get sober almost ten years ago. “We also wanted to make [Ounce] look, like, super cool,” he said.
Rossi says that Ounce comes in 20-ounce and 40-ounce sizes to make it more convenient for the water-chugging crowd to keep track of how much H2O they’ve had—but that doesn’t exactly explain why Ounce has product shots that show it wrapped in what looks a lot like a brown paper bag… you know, the way someone might wrap a bottle of malt liquor.
The 40-ounce bottle of malt liquor was introduced in the 1980s and, shortly after their introduction, brewing companies were accused of aggressively promoting those products in low-income and minority communities—because they were aggressively promoting those products in low-income and minority communities.
“Some teenagers call malt liquor ‘liquid crack’ in tribute to its potency. And to the dismay of drug counselors, social workers and ministers who see malt liquor as a dangerous drug in sheep's clothing, the 40-ounce bottles with brand names like King Cobra, Crazy Horse, Colt 45 and St. Ides have become an accessory to the youth-culture ensemble of baggy clothes, expensive work boots and street-hardened attitudes,” The New York Times wrote in 1993. “‘Tap the Bottle,’ a new song celebrating the consumption of 40-ounce malt liquor, has become a hit on the rap charts.”
The pushback against Ounce is similar to the criticism that the Summerhill bar in Crown Heights, Brooklyn received when it cheekily showed off the “bullet holes” in its back wall and sold bottles of rosé wine in 40-ounce bottles—complete with brown paper bag. “Yes, that bullet hole-ridden wall was originally there and, yes, we're keeping it,” Summerhill wrote in a press release, shortly before Instagramming some dreamy filtered photos of that wall.
The bar was welcomed to the neighborhood with protests, both in real life and online. “Anyone moving to this neighborhood or [...] any historically Black neighborhood in any city who thinks trotting out the worst perceptions of these areas to appear cool or funny while people are being displaced and further marginalised as a result are scum," one Instagram commenter wrote. (In January, Gothamist reported that Summerhill had closed and had painted over the logos on its awning; some workers on the site said it was “rebranding” and would reopen later this year).
So far, Ounce has responded to the controversy by sending Canarsie some 20-ounce bottles of water to replace the 40-ounce versions. “Total apologies to anybody who would be offended by the shape of a bottle,” Rossi said in his video. “There’s just water inside. I just want you to drink more water.”