WINE ADS: A NEW SOBRIETY?

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Advertising has always presented images of perfection, in sharp contrast to the world around us, because that's the inherent promise of the pitch — a better life through product X. We accept this promise at face value because, well, who doesn't want a better life?

And yet, when the horrors of terrorism came blasting through our TVs on Sept. 11 and the weeks thereafter, face value took a resounding hit in the public consciousness. As construction workers and firefighters churned rubble in lower Manhattan, the bourgeois niceties and yuppie gloss that characterized New York City for 20 years seemed out of place. As the holidays descended, shifts in how Americans perceive themselves, and what they consider important, portended considerable changes in how the business community would approach them. In particular, as the wine industry mobilized for its biggest selling season, two different ad campaigns seemed to epitomize distinct images of our supposed common values, pre- and post-Sept. 11.

One TV spot for Fresno, Calif.-based E&J Gallo and its Turning Leaf brand is resoundingly pre-Sept. 11. Set in the gourmet kitchen of a cosmopolitan couple, a model-esque thirtysomething man prepares an elegant meal. He goes through the motions of meticulously dicing, juicing and sautéing until the finished creation graces the plate as if designed by an L.A. food artiste. The voice-over reverently intones: “The handcrafting. The pruning. The selection. The anticipation. The patience. The timing.� Finally, a model-esque woman arrives home, quietly wowed by the bounty awaiting her, and the voice-over delivers the payoff: “The moment,� per Turning Leaf's slogan, “handcrafted for perfect moments.�

Meanwhile, a spot for Brown-Forman's Italian Bolla brand embraces post-Sept. 11 values. Set in more social environs, it proffers a cascade of sepia-toned images of crowded tables full of conversation and kisses. Music hums softly in the background. The various attendees could be family, groups of friends, a mix of both, whatever — which is the point of the ad's message: Family is whoever's around the dinner table.

Both campaigns broke well before Sept. 11, and resumed airing leading into the holidays — rare instances of vintners with the fiscal resources to advertise on electronic media. Unlike most other product categories, the wine business is dependent on existing “core� customers, so its marketing is more focused on luring those consumers from brand to brand, than attracting new clients. Core wine drinkers, those who imbibe once a week or more frequently, account for some 86 percent of wine sales in the U.S., according to Christian Miller, director of MKF Research, a division of St. Helena, Calif.-based industry consultancy Motto Kryla & Fisher.

At the heart of this group lies Baby Boomers, whose fortunes — as the generation matured and nestled in a swelling professional class — have paralleled the industry's in recent years. U.S. wine sales grew from 368 million gallons in 1975, to 581 million in 1987, tailing off with that year's market crash, bottoming out at 466 million in 1991, and rising again through the boom years of the 1990s to 565 million in 2000, according to the San Francisco-based Wine Institute. The Wine Business Monthly journal reported in May 2000 that adults over 40 years old make some 63 percent of wine purchases.

This more insulated demographic makes the wine industry relatively resistant to economic downturn, says Miller. To wit, ACNielsen/Adams tracked an upswing in most wine price categories, domestic and imported, in the face of the steady economic downturn of 2001, with total table wine sales in grocery and drug stores for the 52-week period ended Nov. 17, 2001 at $3.8 billion, versus $3.5 billion the previous year. Much of the dollar-to-volume growth in recent years, says Miller, can be traced to this group's penchant for trading up to higher priced vineyards and vintages. And indeed, sales of the more expensive $9-plus-per-bottle tier grew to $1.1 billion from $972 million during that same time period. But what can impact the market, Miller says, is a cultural sea change. And just such a shift is at hand.

A welter of qualitative research since the terrorist attacks has indicated a re-prioritization by Americans. Boston ad agency Arnold Worldwide, in an extensive study of American psychographics since Sept. 11, reported that, “America has new heroes. They are chosen not from among the pantheon of superstars, but from the ranks of policemen, mail carriers, demolition crews and rescue workers. … If the new hero is ordinary, then it is also true that the ordinary is newly heroic.� New York-based WSL Strategic Retail's study, “How America Shops, 2002,� reveals that 73 percent of Americans have “postponed treats and luxuries� since Sept. 11. And one curious bit of anecdotal coverage speaks to how this might translate to broader lifestyle choices. “People who have just finished redecorating their houses are ripping it out and putting in this whole comfort feeling,� Jack Cotton, a realtor in Osterville, Mass. told the Christian Science Monitor on Oct. 22, 2001. “They're getting rid of fancy stuff and using washed cotton … maybe because they feel a bit guilty about their wealth.�

So, though the 15 million core wine drinkers may stay true, the emotional cues that lure them from label to label must shift in accordance. Wine, to be sure, is not the luxury purchase that, say, a new Jaguar coupe is. That brand's holiday ads, showing an adoring yuppie wife purchasing one as a Christmas gift for her husband, offers a more far-flung flight of upper-crust fancy than Turning Leaf's toothsome ubermenschen. Yet haute couture is intrinsically exclusionary, and the Baby Boom generation's wine culture, at its worst, has been concentrically haute. Recall a recent Wine.com spot that presented moments of ominous social angst when one bumbling poseur stomped on the dinner party's buzz with some bad wine. And the Turning Leaf couple, with everything “perfect,� every hair and shallot in place, seems anachronistically haute in today's post-Sept. 11 world.

The spot may certainly represent the denizens of wine culture, but there is a difference between the reality and how we want or need to perceive ourselves in these times, says Andrew Lynch, a cultural strategist at Arnold who worked on its “Mood & Mindset� reports. “[People] don't want to think of themselves as ‘perfect,’ as self-congratulatory to a fault, about something like a perfect meal,� says Lynch. “Our perceptions of what's important have shifted away from the superficial trappings of the meal to what happens during the meal.�

Bolla seems to offer that tonic, finding the greater common denominator of the culture. Softer in focus, warmer, familial, the brand touches us in more earthy places, places where we are all welcome — even while, owing to its pre-Sept. 11 production, does not employ the scurrilous invocations of red-white-and-blue “unity� that the Hilfiger and Chrysler ads have.

“Our tag line is ‘open up,’ which of course can mean ‘open the bottle’ literally, but also ‘open up to what life has to offer, without fretting about all these mores and self-imposed rules,’� says Lisa Kepple, account supervisor at Bolla agency Carmichael Lynch in Minneapolis. “It is a perfect contrast to our sort of rat race mentality in the U.S. Stop for a minute, hug your family members — that seems so much more relevant today.�

Indeed, the payoff is something timeless and more mundane, sort of like family, which, as most of us have been recently reminded, is far from perfect, and yet it remains so central to our lives. It's not that people like the Turning Leaf couple all of a sudden don't exist, or that they will start dressing down in solidarity with New York firefighters. Rather, in the frame of commercial culture, we aspire to their ornamental ideal profoundly less when our heroes get their hands and faces dirty.

“Everything for years has been over-the-top, overdone,� says Graceann Bennett, director of brand planning at Arnold. “Everyone's beautiful, super sexy, rich, and we looked at ordinary people, ordinary lives as mundane and uninteresting. What Sept. 11 brought to life is that that the ordinary is more interesting, more meaningful, richer than we'd appreciated.�

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