Death & real life: Johnnie Walker “spec” spot gamely walks through advertising’s biggest taboo.
December 21, 2015
I keep ruminating over this film for Johnnie Walker the way one might ponder a glass of scotch itself. It’s that good, completely deserving of Adweek’s hyperbolic praise. Maybe it’s even better than the Cannes winning “Keep Walking” film done a few years ago by advertising giant, BBH London -attached below. Pitting the two is perhaps insulting to both. Still, the fact that the newer piece is a spec film made by a pair of film students, Daniel Titz and Dorian Lebherz is truly remarkable. Everything about their film is done with grace and beauty. I hesitate to even call it a “spot.” This is a statement piece, for them and the brand. Clearly, these two young men have old souls. Brave ones, too. Blessedly unaffected by the myriad politics of Adland, they merely did the right thing. Oh, were that it were!
Scotch whiskey has always been known as a thinking man’s drink. It has depth and character best appreciated by sipping. This differentiates the liquor from most other spirits. Unfortunately, this difference is seldom romanced by the advertising industry. Instead, we get endless variations of people having a good time. While in some portrayals the partying around whiskey may be more uptown it’s still partying. Advertisers are hell bent against exploring deeper truths about these brands for fear of coming off as old fashioned, melancholy or maudlin. Drinking alone was and is considered verboten for 99% of all spirits’ advertising. Likewise, men drinking without women (or vice versa) is almost as taboo. And so on. In Adland, solitude means loneliness and depression. God forbid a gentleman has a neat drink at twilight. Next, he’ll be reaching for a gun!
I know of what I speak. As a creative at Leo Burnett, I worked on Johnnie Walker Black Label and Red Label. I was thrilled to have written and sold the campaign, “Welcome to Civilization.” But Lord, what an uphill battle. Alex Bogusky considered it the best thing in my portfolio. Probably because it went deeper. Though not as deep as what we have here.
In this film, two young men –brothers- return their father’s ashes to the sea. In the process of their journey, they share a glass and toast the departed. By no means are they whooping it up. But they’re not crying or miserable either. They are celebrating a good life and yes, a good death.
The kiss of death? Hardly. Even if its topic is an ending, there is something deeply life affirming about this story. These young men are graceful and true men, doing something wonderful. And in doing so aren’t they just extensions of their father – a man who obviously taught them well?
This is the very best thing a spirit can be a part of. Not the dumbass partying of frat boys looking for a good time but a reflection and celebration of a life well lived. It’s easy to blame brand managers and the like for insisting on “happy” and “fun.” But I actually think we are all culpable. Quiet moments, especially the quieting of life, are topics we constantly push aside, mostly out of fear. Advertising yields to this fear like butter to a knife.
But this “commercial” gamely looks right at death and in turn reaffirms life. Finally, I should add that though the script is lyrical and stunning, it is also hard working copy, seamlessly integrating the brand’s longtime theme, “Keep Walking” in a way that elevates it like never before.