SAVAN: Oh, Grow Up

Corporate sponsorship being as common as E. coli, I shouldn't have been surprised at the large Dewar's logo on the bottom of an invitation to a Village Voice event. Dewar's was sponsoring a Voice Literary Supplement soiree and serving free "Classic Cocktails." The country's best-selling brand of Scotch has been pouring into bars, restaurants, and otherwise private parties for a couple years now, so why should scoring a Voice affair raise even an eyebrow? After all, Dewar's advertises in their pages, and downtown writerly types are just the sort of "leading-edge people" and "trendsetting audience" that the company is "developing relationships" with all over the Northeast, as a Dewar's spokeswoman puts it. I went to the party, I sipped a barely potable Scotch "Marguerita," and I stole a handsome Dewar's tumbler (I wasn't the only one, and I'm betting that Dewar's is tickled to have its logo lounging around as many artistes' garrets as possible). Still, I was in awe not at Dewar's chutzpah or the Voice's compliance but at how completely a brand name can blanket a city with irritating ads and bar-invading sales pitches and not have people throw drinks in its face.The subway, however, may be another story. Like advertisers of all sorts, Dewar's has bought up all the ad space in a whole lot of subway cars. One L-train passenger said she found it ludicrous bordering on ugly to ride a train in which mostly working-class straphangers are surrounded by ads of elite young pretties illustrating presumably clever lines like, "He's straight, single, employed and sitting in your living room. Now what?" Or, "Now that your ideal vacation no longer involves a 22-hour bus ride to Fort Lauderdale." Each comment or question, of course, is answered with a logo and a Dewar's on the rocks. But the last swizzle stick for the L-train rider was Dewar's compassion-challenged ad that read: "Here's hoping you're not sitting next to the guy who's talking to himself."What's curious about this campaign -- called "Truths," which replaced the well-known Dewar's "Profiles" about three years ago -- is how it can provoke both a constant, low-level disgust and a grudging assent: Set against a photo of four boho guys in goatees, the copy reads, "Okay, you've done the goatee thing. Now can we all just move on." That got my goat: like, don't give us more what's-in-and-what's-out crap. But then I also felt, well, maybe this is catching some wave, jousting some pretension (though I doubt it).That's what grates about Dewar's knowing little lines, the presumption that it not only understands your rites of passage into adulthood, but that it can predict how you'll fill in the missing beats they've so smartly left out: "You thought girls were yucky once too," says an ad next to a winsome young woman emerging from the shower. Jamie Prusack, product group director for Dewar's, explains that "a lot of current copylines leave it to the reader to close the loop," because that "inspires some thought and involvement on the consumer's part."To some extent, most advertising works by loop closure, but Dewar's loops are often forced into nooses. Under Rodin's "The Thinker," the copy reads, "One does not solve the world's problems over a glass of white wine." But make that red wine and you have the original problem-solver. And white wine works as a joke only if you fall for tired formulas like white wine is yup, real men drink beer, and, in a stereotype being honed as we speak, Scotch means sophistication. That's the trouble with all X-brand = Y-idea equations, whether you're talking liquor, sneakers, or designer labels. The associations aren't just arbitrary, they're a web of purchased thought. But Dewar's goes further to get a fix on you. Bucking the trend of ads that flatter consumers as rebellious, nonconforming individualists, Dewar's reassures imbibers that they're chugging along the stages of life right on schedule and just as expected -- and that, in the bosom of their psychographic cohort, they're never alone."Listen," Dewar's tells a baffled-looking male observing his very slim girlfriend, "if you can handle 'Honey, do I look fat?' you can handle this." Yes, we women often ask that; yes, it expresses an obsessive but adorable vanity. But what's yucky about it is that we're all supposed to be in automatic agreement that the woman in the ad is not just slim but drop-dead gorgeous. We're supposed to react as one to certain sets of signals.Maybe, too, the ads smell funny because, deliberately or not, Dewar's is selling itself as a cigarette replacement -- the thing to grab and bring to mouth that gives you more gravel, makes you seem more sexually knowing, more tragically artistic, whatever, as long as it's an image of public cool that you can replay even while alone. "I've seen a lot more young people drinking high-end liquors and smoking cigars," says Jason Tarbart, a bartender at the West End Gate. "Maybe it's a retro thing -- trying to get back to the good life.""Congratulations. Dinner and Happy Hour are now separate events." If you haven't figured it out yet, the Dewar's campaign is about getting Gen X to no longer think of Scotch as your father's alcoholic beverage (the same ad agency that created Oldsmobile's "This is not your father's automobile" created this). As with sales of all distilled spirits, Scotch sales are down, from 20 million cases in 1980 to 9 million in 1995. Sales for Dewar's, still the number-one Scotch, have dived too, but the campaign has "improved" the brand's image -- i.e., it's gotten younger.Older Scotch drinkers are simply dying off, and that's "a big problem," Dewar's Prusack says. "Scotch's heyday was in the '70s. So we're trying to remedy the situation by attracting younger generations." Lifestylewise, the target is "transitionals -- people moving from youthful behavior to settling-in behavior." Dewar's needs this particular kind of young people because, says Prusack, "Scotch is an acquired taste." That is, at first it tastes awful. Hence, "we want to connect to the more mature, confident, settled lifestyle of someone willing to invest in a long-term decision. Scotch takes some commitment." Schieffelin & Somerset Co., the importer of Dewar's, Hennessy cognac, and Tanqueray gin, is quite committed to what might be called 3-D marketing -- finding and creating consumers at bars, parties, and events. (Tanqueray's current American AIDS Rides, which almost makes up for its lecherous Mr. Jenkins ads, is an "image bonanza," deems Ad Age.)Hennessy perhaps went too 3-D when, a few years back, its ad agency hired good-looking young actors to go into upscale bars and order a "Hennessy martini." "We pretend to run into some people we know and invite them to join us for a drink. It's pretty wild," one paid drinker told Newsday at the time. Shortly after the story came out, Hennessy halted the practice.Hennessy now works those rooms more like Dewar's does. The "three-pronged" effort includes "networking" with scenemakers like the Groove Academy for events and tie-ins. "Really," says Prusack, "we've become a part of the community down there."In addition, Dewar's sponsors private parties -- large bashes thrown by party promoters like Susan Bartsch or smaller parties in which "we work with publications like yourselves." For the commoners, T-shirted reps go into "highly targeted bars and talk to consumers about Dewar's," Prusack says, calling such discussions "more of a peer conversation than a sales pitch." Those who sign a drink ticket might later receive a copy of the large-typed Dewar's Magazine or an invitation to attend a "mentor program."Funny what passes for mentoring these days. For Dewar's, it's having a lot of bartenders talk to small groups of invitees about "why Dewar's tastes the way it does," says Prusack. After some mingling and sipping, a comedian will do "a routine that talks to the maturing life stages, and maybe reference back to your high school or college years."Once, becoming an adult was signaled by, say, a bar mitzvah. Today, it's signaled by ordering the right mixed drink at the bar. But Dewar's isn't the only product selling tickets to maturity. For its Arch Deluxe, McDonald's threw a few mustard seeds into the sauce of the same old burger, ran a few arch ads featuring Ronald McDonald playing golf and shooting pool like some kind of world-weary divorced dad, and spent $150 million to market what some analysts think will be another McDud.At about the same time, Bob Dole's campaign, trying to reposition his age into an asset, has managed to get dozens of journalists to refer to him as the adult or the grown-up in the race. Dole suggested his slogan could be "Bob Dole -- Adult" and started calling himself "the Comeback Adult." That last was reiterated by hacks as if they'd thunk it up thumselves: "It turns out there is such a thing as a comeback adult, too" (Memphis's Commercial Appeal). "Dawgone if there isn't such a thing as the Comeback Adult, too" (Arkansas Democrat-Gazette).This new vogue for adulthood seems to contradict the longer-standing return to childhood -- the baseball caps, the sneakers, the crayons to draw on tablecloths at eateries that serve meatloaf and Jell-O, all the ads that promise boomers they'll never have to really grow old. But actually, the commercial definitions of adult are childlike cliches: having dates (Dewar's), being a tad tart (Arch Deluxe), or acting crusty (Dole). Such images better fit Robert Bly's description of "half adults" in his new book The Sibling Society: "parents regress to become more like children, and the children, through abandonment, are forced to become adults too soon, and never quite make it."It was pretty inevitable that a Dewar's ad took a shot at Bly's Iron John men's movement. "Becoming a man doesn't have to involve beating drums or hugging a tree" the line went, as a bunch of balding middle-aged guys beat drums and hug each other. "Now that's a profoundly adolescent thought -- that all you have to do to be a man is to drink," Bly told the Boston Globe, though he might have better attacked by dubbing Dewar's target as a generation of Irony Johnnys.Many Dewar's dudes may want to be real adults, but we've all been too suckled on the tube to understand "adult" in anything but entertainment and marketing terms. One may engage in the settling-in rituals that Dewar's suggests, but as long as we hope to capture maturity via a symbol -- drink, burger, or candidate -- we'll always remain a Sisyphean step away.And speaking of sucking tube, the day may soon come when we see "Honey, do I look fat?" in TV commercials. Seagrams's Crown Royal Canadian Whiskey broke the liquor industry's long-held, voluntary ban on advertising distilled spirits on U.S. television with a spot on a Corpus Christi TV station. Like nearly every purveyor of liquor, Dewar's is "obviously interested" in advertising on TV, says Prusack. "We believe we have a constitutional right to be on all media." But in the meantime, it's just "keeping an eye on the situation."In the face of such temptation, continuing to volunteer to do the hard thing would be so...grown-up. One day Dewar's could even run a print ad toasting itself for reaching such an important corporate rite of passage: "Now that you've decided not to advertise on TV."

Enjoy this piece?

… then let us make a small request. AlterNet’s journalists work tirelessly to counter the traditional corporate media narrative. We’re here seven days a week, 365 days a year. And we’re proud to say that we’ve been bringing you the real, unfiltered news for 20 years—longer than any other progressive news site on the Internet.

It’s through the generosity of our supporters that we’re able to share with you all the underreported news you need to know. Independent journalism is increasingly imperiled; ads alone can’t pay our bills. AlterNet counts on readers like you to support our coverage. Did you enjoy content from David Cay Johnston, Common Dreams, Raw Story and Robert Reich? Opinion from Salon and Jim Hightower? Analysis by The Conversation? Then join the hundreds of readers who have supported AlterNet this year.

Every reader contribution, whatever the amount, makes a tremendous difference. Help ensure AlterNet remains independent long into the future. Support progressive journalism with a one-time contribution to AlterNet, or click here to become a subscriber. Thank you. Click here to donate by check.

Close
alternet logo

Tough Times

Demand honest news. Help support AlterNet and our mission to keep you informed during this crisis.