From the editors

Whisky marketing can’t live in the past

  • It’s quite a contrast. Two advertisements, only three pages apart, in Alcohol and Tobacco: 100 Years of Stimulating Ads, a pictorial guide to a century of booze and fags marketing in the US.

    Ad one, from 1990: two men in beach shorts recline on sunbeds, drink in one hand, high-fiving with the other. Why? Pan out and you’ll see they’re surrounded by 10 bikini- and swimsuit-clad women, all with supermodel figures. You can see that one of the women has undone her bikini top, but you can’t see their faces. ‘Seagram’s 7 and 7th heaven,’ reads the caption. ‘Seagram’s Seven Crown,’ adds the strapline. ‘America’s Good Time Spirit.’

    Ad two, from 1997: Absolut Pride. That unmistakable bottle silhouette, entirely filled in by rainbow colours; released in June 1997 to mark the 28th anniversary of the Stonewall gay rights uprising in Greenwich Village, New York.

    The two different approaches say much about the changing times of the decade in which they were produced, but also about the brands they are attempting to sell: one a traditional American whiskey with a predominantly male demographic; the other an imported Swedish vodka keen to strengthen an already cool image with its young, urban – and more gender-balanced – clientele.

    It’s an important distinction: while shifts in advertising strategy do reflect societal change, they only do so through the prism of what the brand owner thinks will sell their product. 

    More than 20 years on, social media has complicated that picture. It’s entirely (and depressingly) possible that the Seagram’s ad would still work today from a commercial standpoint, selling more of the product to a certain audience (including, if he drank, the current resident of the White House).

    Seagram's and Absolut ads from the 1990s

    Changing times: Two ads from the 1990s illustrate shifting priorities from advertisers

    But the marketeer brave enough to greenlight such a campaign had better be ready for the backlash on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, which will then inevitably percolate through to the mainstream media. It’s hard to quantify the reputational and commercial damage that this kind of shitstorm can generate, but it’s one most companies are keen to avoid.

    As a result, even the most hard-nosed advertiser stops running such campaigns, not necessarily out of any desire to be fair or moral, but because they know they can’t get away with it any more. Everyone, surely, has got that message by now?

    Not quite everyone.

    Establishing a new whisky brand in the 2010s is a tough task, but one of the pluses is that you have a blank canvas: you get to create your own identity and, within the confines of the category, your own audience. You don’t have to be stuck in the past.

    That’s what makes the approach taken by Bladnoch Distillery Ltd’s Pure Scot brand utterly baffling: a horrendous series of sexist, demeaning, objectifying Instagram posts under the strapline ‘Don’t be Told’.

    Looked at collectively, the posts make it abundantly clear that the only role open to women in the Pure Scot world is as a ‘sexual aspiration’, to quote Vinium Consultancy, the source of a complaint about the campaign to the Scotch Whisky Association (SWA).

    The campaign is bad enough; the reaction from the company to the complaint, and the finding against it by the SWA, is bewildering. Yes, the offending posts were removed, but in a fashion that redefines the word ‘begrudging’. To quote:

    ‘…we have reviewed these images, most of which are extremely old and even pre-date the launch of Pure Scot whisky itself. Many of these images are out-of-date and no longer speak to our positive Pure Scot brand message…’
    (Pure Scot submission to SWA Complaints Panel, quoted by SWA)

    Ok, so the images were old (but bear in mind that Pure Scot was only launched in 2015), and the campaign, and the brand, have moved on to a more ‘positive’ message. The perfect opportunity, then, to hold your hands up and admit: ‘We got it wrong.’

    Pure Scot whisky bottle

    Moving on?: Pure Scot says it has evolved to communicate a more positive message

    Er… no. Instead, Pure Scot ‘wholeheartedly rejected’ any suggestion that it had breached the SWA’s Code of Practice for the Responsible Marketing and Promotion of Scotch Whisky, and appealed against the ruling, only to have the verdict upheld by the SWA’s Independent Complaints Panel. 

    But the thing that bugs me most, beyond the posts themselves? It’s this:

    ‘Pure Scot’s marketing is appropriate for a brand which aims to set itself apart from the competition by daring to be different and breaking the mould of what traditional whisky marketing looks like.’
    (Pure Scot submission to SWA Complaints Panel, quoted by SWA)

    ‘Set itself apart… daring to be different… breaking the mould…’ Do me a favour. One of the chief criticisms of the offending Pure Scot posts was that many only showed the lower half of the female model’s body; now look again at that Seagram’s ad from 1990 with its lack of female faces. Twenty-five years on, the same level of objectification.

    But it’s not just Pure Scot. Right now, around the world, there are plenty more people who think it’s a good idea to try to sell whisky in this way; by treating 50% of the population as if they don’t really count, except as an object to be looked at, pursued and acquired. The lesson of this furore is not to let them get away with it.

    Rather than ‘breaking the mould’, the puerile Pure Scot campaign is every bit as anachronistic in the context of Scotch whisky as the use of tartan, heather and bagpipes. This isn’t some vision of the future of Scotch whisky marketing, it’s a hellride back into its rather shameful past.

    And in the past is just where it should stay.

Scroll To Top