HEAT VISION

The Rise (and Decline) of a 'Star Wars' Instagram Empire

Scotch Trooper - Screengrab - SQ 2018
Screengrab/Instagram
Brett Ferencz was enjoying sponsored posts on his account Scotch Trooper — which posed action figures next to whisky brands — until the alcohol industry put a stop to it.

You’ve never heard of Brett Ferencz, but you may know his work. The former web developer out of Atlanta, Georgia, set up an Instagram profile in August of 2014 after having his first taste of whisky at a Rush concert. Three years later his account, @Scotch_Trooper, had more than 60,000 followers.

The formula was straight forward, although hardly as simple as it seemed: he would artfully pose action figures from the George Lucas space saga alongside bottles of high end booze. By combining his love of aged spirits with his passion for Star Wars, Ferencz stumbled into a new career. Along the way he opened the door for a whole new category of Instagram influencers who are working kids toys into a very adult game.

“Posting action figures is something I just organically fell into,” Ferencz tells The Hollywood Reporter. “One day I posted a Fisher-Price stormtrooper in front of two bottles and it got such a great response that I tried a few similar shots and it got some great reactions.”

With newfound likes rolling in by the hundreds, the social media newcomer quickly invested in a larger, more expensive set of Star Wars figures. At the time, the posts were interspersed amongst other non-Star Wars related photos — which failed to attract even a fraction of the same engagement.

“After a few months I ended up being featured on Huffington Post, The Nerdist, Whisky Advocate, and others,” he says. “That was when I figured I should stick to that photo series.”

It didn’t take long before the multi-billion dollar whisky industry was extending invites across the globe, and offering financial incentives for sponsored posts. Ferencz departed his web developer gig in early 2017 and launched a creative media agency to consult directly with booze brands. He would assist sizable producers with photography, organize tastings, and streamline marketing where possible.

In so doing he joined the ranks of a growing number of Instagram influencers who monetize their substantial followings into full-time careers. Although @Scotch_Trooper’s 64,000-plus fans pales in comparison to the multiple millions backing some of his fashion and lifestyle counterparts, in the realm of distilled spirits, he’s near the top of his game. Whisky lovers can be a cultish tribe; those that are into it are really into it. Its witnessed through the high percentage of engagement (likes, comments, and reposts) Ferencz sees on his posts. This is what brands covet — an audience who consciously considers the provided content, as these are the ones most likely to make purchases. 

Ferencz isn’t the only one playing with toys. There’s a handful of Instagrammers out there (@ryandeantoyphotography, @yasuke_79, @princedraco, notable among them) posing comic, cartoon, and Lego figures into exceedingly elaborate frames. But @Scotch_Trooper was the first one to cross-pollinate tribes, between the Comic-Con set and whisky enthusiasts. Its already inspired prominent copycats, such as @MarvelAtWhisky — who’s building a fanbase with Spiderman and Deadpool subbing in for storm troopers.

 

A post shared by Scotch Trooper™ (@scotch_trooper) on

 

A post shared by Scotch Trooper™ (@scotch_trooper) on

Some might suspect that all this extracurricular capitalization might lead to an eventual cease and desist. And they’d be right. Ferencz received his in the mail this spring. But it wasn’t from Disney. It was from the Distilled Spirits Council, which is the national trade assocation for liquor.

"The Code Review Board concluded the use of Star Wars action figures is inappropriate for distilled spirits marketing materials," A rep for the Distilled Spirits Council tells THR in a statement. "It was the use of these action figures, rather than any business relations with the Scotch Trooper himself, that was found in violation of the Code."

As Ferencz explains it:  “Someone anonymously submitted a 26-page complaint to the Distilled Spirits Council stating that I, and all the brands I have worked with over the last few years, are advertising to minors by using toys in my photos.”

The result? The sponsored content dried up almost overnight. @Scotch_Trooper no longer explicitly poses action figures alongside specific labels of whisky.

“But I’ve inspired a whole new style of photography and advertising through social media,” Ferencz maintains. “All this [complaint] accomplished was taking down one person.”

In his place are dozens of imitators whose primary point of differentiation is that they haven’t done it as successfully as @Scotch_Trooper. To keep the lights on (literally), Ferencz is crafting customized lamps out of whisky bottles, which he promotes through his feed. He also parlays his social media fame into more obvious side gigs, namely photography, touting his art projects through a subscription-funded site.

@Scotch_Trooper’s struggle highlights the perils of dabbling in this nascent cottage industry. His particular circumstances are bizarre, to be sure, and perhaps the repercussion of an over-competitive colleague in the whisky Instagrammer sphere. But how big can any of these influencers grow? More to the point, how much money will they be allowed to earn on the backs of licensed merchandise, before the major studios come raining down on their parade? Making a career out of playing with toys is all fun and games, until it isn’t.

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