Ok, now I've got your attention I should clarify – I mean the term "real ale", NOT "real ale" itself.
Real ale rhetoric is commonly along the lines of "we want more people to drink real ale, we think more people should give up mass-produced lager."
A number of factors influence the decisions of the majority who prefer to stick with safe mass-produced beer. Paramount amongst them is image, and image is made up of associations. My belief is that associations attached to the word "ale" are inhibiting its uptake.
"Ale" is an ancient word, over a thousand years old. That's a lot of history. Indeed, a history to be proud of. Unfortunately, it seems to me, use of the word "ale" forces us to look backwards – and significant numbers of people are really deeply indifferent to, and uncomfortable with, looking backwards.
Just think of some of the contemporary interests of British people e.g. fashion, technology, their kids, the latest release by a favourite band. All these interests are imbued with a curiosity about what might happen in the future. "Ale", being a historical word doesn't fit in with the forward-looking cultural interests of huge numbers of people.
There is another angle here: younger people seem the most resistant to the allure of depth of history; older people tend to grow to appreciate historical associations. I don't find this surprising. Young people, by virtue of having a lot of life ahead of them are prone to looking forward. The corollary is that older people have more to look back on, and in so doing may develop increased interest in the built-in historical associations of the word "ale".
The beer market reflects this: real ale, on the whole, appeals to older men (we'll get on to the gender question some other time).
(OK, at this point some loudmouth will be telling us in exasperated tones about Kevin S0-and-So aged 18 who only drink real ale, as if that trumps my argument. That's an exception isn't it? It's like a smoker defending his habit by saying "my grandad smoked 40 a day until he was 102". It's an exception, not an example of a trend.)
Here's my conclusion: as part of a broader effort to sell more craft beer to more people outside of the long-standing middle-aged bloke demographic it is necessary to ditch the word "ale". And ditching the word "ale" means ditching the the term "real ale", it's had its day. The replacement I favour is "craft beer." What say you?