Booze-Brand Advertising Harks Back to a Time When Men Were Men

Efforts From Ketel One, Chivas, Others Tap Into Old-Fashioned Ideals

By Published on .

CHICAGO ( -- In the latest ad for Ketel One, a group of Rat Pack wannabes hoist their glasses as a narrator celebrates a return to "when men were men." New creative for Chivas Regal urges men to live by a "code" of chivalry. And 1800 Tequila has an actor best known for playing a mobster all but calling Patron a phony little priss.

IT'LL PUT HAIR ON YOUR CHEST: Brands like Jim Beam, Ketel One and 1800 aim at consumer ideas on what it means to be a man.
IT'LL PUT HAIR ON YOUR CHEST: Brands like Jim Beam, Ketel One and 1800 aim at consumer ideas on what it means to be a man.
Spirits marketing has certainly come a long way from "Sex and the City" and its signature pink cocktails. And, amid a recession, challenger brands are attempting to paint their rivals as relics of a freer-spending, less-sensible time.

"It's a reaction to the pink cosmos as much as anything," said Dan Fietsam, chief creative officer at Energy BBDO, which created the "Damn Right Your Dad Drank It" platform for Canadian Club that celebrates the no-nonsense, pre-metrosexual glory of the "Mad Men" era.

Mr. Fietsam's team at Energy BBDO also created a campaign for Jim Beam bourbon titled "Guys Never Change," which shows how certain male activities -- like playing air guitar -- have persevered through the years. "There's also this idea of a fundamental guy-ness that doesn't change, which is really appealing to people at a moment when there's a lot of changes going on."

A return to fundamentals, of course, starts with an economy that has rendered much of the cocktail craze moot. Consumers go out less and drink at home more, diminishing the appeal of certain pricey brands that might have sounded impressive to call for in a bar setting.

Beyond that, they're also trading down to less-expensive beverages and increasingly shunning white spirits such as vodka and tequila, which dominated the boom years, in favor of brown spirits such as whiskey. And while whiskey drinkers tend to skew decidedly more male, that hasn't stopped vodka and tequila marketers from making more gruff appeals as well.

The new pitch from superpremium 1800, starring "Sopranos" star Michael Imperioli, takes on category leader Patron directly. In one version, Mr. Imperioli declares: "These days, it's all velvet ropes and posturing. I don't know about you, but when I drink it, I really like to kick back and be myself." He then throws his feet up onto the table in front of him and sends a bottle of Patron careening toward the floor.

It's not subtle. "Look, tequila is a man's drink, and Patron has feminized the whole category," said Elwyn Gladstone, VP-marketing at 1800's parent, Proximo.

And while picking a fight with a larger, better known and more profitable competitor is a time-tested strategy for challenger brands to gin up buzz, 1800 is hardly the only brand taking that tack. A voice-over in the first TV ad for Diageo's Ketel One laments, for instance, that "there was a time when men didn't drink their vodka from delicately-painted perfume bottles. ... There was a time when men were men." That broadside, of course, could easily be aimed at Grey Goose or Belvedere, the envelope-pushing uber-luxe brands of the vodka category.

In the whiskey category, Chivas Regal late last year launched a new campaign focusing on "Chivalry," which it defines as a "code of behavior that sets certain men apart." The spot opens with a sea of suit-clad workers all walking in the same direction -- deliberately evocative of category leader Johnnie Walker's "Keep Walking" mascot. "Millions of people, all looking out for themselves," the voiceover says. "Can this be the only way?"

Russ Lidstone, CEO of Chivas' agency, Euro RSCG, London, said the ads did indeed target Johnnie Walker. "Look, they have this phenomenal idea of 'Keep Walking,' which is predicated in perseverance and personal progress," he said. "But our opportunity is to rail against this 'personal progress' notion because, yeah, individuality is important, but it's how you do things and your respect for others that's important," he said, adding: "That greed-is-good notion has dissipated to some degree."

Man laws

Four trends spirits marketers are trying to capitalize on by going from girlish to grunting appeals.

Consumers are going out less, and staying in more. The bar- and club-hopping appeal of "Sex in the City" and its fabulous pink cocktails seems like a relic from another era amid the recession. Advertisers naturally want to position themselves with the times.

Timeless masculinity is comforting during unstable times. "The idea that there's a fundamental guyness that doesn't change is really appealing during a period when it feels like everything is changing," said Dan Fietsam, chief creative officer of Energy BBDO, Jim Beam's ad agency.

Amid a recession caused in part by greed, brands want to be seen as selfless and workmanlike, not flashy. "The financial meltdown gave us all a clear look at what greed can do to the world," said Russ Lidstone, CEO of Euro RSCG London.

Challenger brands see opportunity. The boom times earlier this decade launched pricey prestige brands such as Grey Goose and Patron into the sales stratosphere, and now brands eyeing their sales see an opportunity to paint them as irrelevant during tighter times.

Most Popular
In this article: