“if you go chasing rabbits…you know you’re going to fall.”

“What’s your wild rabbit?” is the enigmatic question posed in Hennessy’ ad campaign from revered agency Droga5. I’ve seen these ads for some time now on marquee billboards, in national magazines, even as films. And while I admire agency and client for going all-in with a high concept (clients typically insist on showing drinkers drinking) I don’t get it. Not really.

Yes, of course, on a poetic level I know what the copy is saying: that the “wild rabbit” is a metaphor for your passion. And, because liquor ads are never wrong about these things, we’re supposed to find ours. Masculine icons like filmmaker Martin Scorsese (Raging Bull, Taxi Driver) and fighter Manny Pacquiao reveal what their wild rabbits are. In some ads the body copy overtly describes what the “wild rabbit” is: “It’s the voice that keeps you up at night…lurking in the corner.”


Yikes! Given all that lurking who wouldn’t need a drink?

Joking aside, I cannot salute this creative flag. (I want to. For its chutzpa alone.) Yet for me this is a well-hit ball that just goes foul.

Chasing rabbits seems like pipe dreaming. It evokes the notion of big plans gone to seed. Of men sitting in dark corners getting hammered and talking about tomorrow. But tomorrow never comes, does it? Just despair. That’s what I get when I take in these melancholy photographs and the dark prose. Are we not taught to avoid going down rabbit holes?

In the famous movie Harvey, Jimmy Stewart plays an alcoholic with an imaginary rabbit for a friend. He’s found his wild rabbit and it leads to the booby hatch. Some years later Grace Slick warned us about chasing rabbits in her iconic song White Rabbit about a bad acid trip. In the context of booze advertising, don’t rabbits seem wildly inappropriate? In addition, every time I hear the phrase “wild rabbit” I think of Wild Turkey bourbon. That can’t be good for business.

I’ll have what he’s having. -From Harvey

Maybe I’m missing something. After all, Droga5 seldom botches. When I was researching this campaign I found a nifty piece on a blog called Breaking Copy.The author is gung-ho about the campaign but I don’t buy his analysis. He writes the campaign “feels familiar, tapping into a shared cultural memory of Alice In Wonderland and the woodlands of Old Europe. It’s also a little bit sexy — after all, what are rabbits known for?”

The blogger mentions two other well-known references –which are fair. The first being Alice in Wonderland. It’s been a long while since I read the fable but, to my memory, Alice gets into a world of trouble chasing her wild rabbit. I believe the negative phrase “going down a rabbit hole” stems from her massive tribulations down there. Still, Wonderland is ultimately a magical place where creativity, imagination and personal freedoms are celebrated –perhaps to a fault. In any event, I’m willing to concede getting stoned on cognac can be a wonderful experience. Was Droga5 trying to tap into that? As in Lewis Carroll’s story maybe the indirect homage to inebriation is intentional. After all, liquor ads cannot go there directly (that’s why they are so hard to do). But then why the prizefighters and movie directors, this idea of “bringing something into the world?” It’s muddy.

“Can we see some ID?”

His second “a little bit sexy” reference relates to bunny rabbits’ affinity for reproduction. I suppose on one level getting drunk and chasing “tail” is akin to “breeding like rabbits” but I’m very certain this has nothing to do with Hennessy’s message, even on a subliminal level. What do you think?

The blogger ends his discussion by stating the campaign’s intent can be summed up in six words: “Getting white people to drink Hennessy.” He actually may be on to something, albeit possibly racist: that white folks will appreciate the brand’s enigmatic approach more than black people. However, this takes me back to my original concerns about the campaign. Namely that rabbit holes, imaginary drinking pals and the Jefferson Airplane paint pictures most Anglo Saxons would find upsetting. They may be reasons to drink Hennessy but they strike me as the wrong ones.

Online poker not so sexy anymore.

Last Friday, the FBI shut down two of the most popular online gambling sites, Poker Stars and Full Tilt Poker, accusing their owners of money laundering and other nefarious activities. According to the Chicago Tribune, eleven people were arrested and indicted by the Feds. And they’re gunning for more.

Go to Poker Stars now. Online visitors are greeted with a message saying, “This domain name has been seized by the F.B.I. pursuant to an Arrest Warrant,” and an enumeration of federal anti-gambling statutes and penalties.” Talk about a buzz kill.

While I’m not a gambler, the story interests me because several years ago an online gaming site approached my agency to pitch for its marketing. We could have used the business but I’m happy to say we begged off, mostly for fear of being accomplice to criminal activity. But not before attending a briefing session with the client. Like I said, we needed the revenue; it was hard walking away.

I’ll never forget their presentation to us and, in particular, what the CMO called the advertising for his business: “dark marketing.” Dark marketing, he said, was advertising something that in “certain contexts” was illegal. He likened it to selling alcohol and cigarettes. Yet, in a very real way the term implied heavier baggage and bigger risks, more akin to prostitution and gun running. Honestly, any company that has to run its business “off shore” clearly has issues.

It was a creepy presentation but a titillating one. I felt dirty for having participated and yet also provoked. I knew gambling was a vice and a sin. But I also knew that meant the opportunity for doing brilliant creative was high. Edginess equals awards. In the end, the inherent sleaziness of the brand coupled with a stern caution from our legal department caused us to bail.

Yet, this notion of dark marketing stuck with me. When it came to making a buck, or winning awards, just how far were agencies willing to go? One wonders what, if anything, will happen to these sites marketing partners. Beyond morality issues, are there consequence to dark marketing?

Bad ass?

Over the holidays I decided to check out the True Religion store in Chicago. I was looking for something fun for my daughters featuring the brand’s telltale insignia, like a tee shirt. Though they did have one specialty item for kids (some sort of gift pack), TR really isn’t appropriate for children. That’s part of what makes the brand so cool. True Religion gets $200 to $400 for a pair of blue jeans by cultivating an “R” rating, flirting with trendy young adults, celebrities and the urban hip hop crowd. I’m guessing they get their share of poseurs as well. Anyone who lays out that much green for tricked-out denim is compensating for something.

Anyway, I walk in the store and it was like I entered a creepy scene from a Tarantino movie. This was the stage set: Three blinged-out black dudes checking out denim and five feet away a big-ass white guy staring them down. The “security guard” had a serious looking revolver strapped to his waist. Though no crime was taking place, the tableau had entirely too much edge for my liking. For Christ’s sake, I’m Christmas shopping in Lincoln Park not looking for crack on the west side! Seemingly indifferent, the pierced hipster working the counter cheerfully asked me if I needed any help. Briefly, I feigned interest in some doodad and then got the hell out of there.

Later, I mentioned the episode to a nearby shopkeeper and he was completely unsurprised. “Oh yeah,” he said. “True Religion gets robbed all the time. Thieves steal the jeans and sell them on the street for a hundred bucks a pair. The guard is an off-duty Chicago policeman.” He laughed. “They don’t even try to blend in.”

I don’t know why I was so non-plussed. I grew up in the city, in a shitty neighborhood. I know what time it is. I recall the same sort of fervor over Nike’s Air Jordan basketball shoes -kids in the ghetto killing other boys for their shoes. For a time we were told not to wear them to school. In addition, I’m an ad guy. I know certain brands cultivate a bad-boy image to stimulate demand: Harley Davidson, Grand Theft Auto, etc… As a matter of fact, I’ve worked on such brands. Depending on the category, we called it “dark marketing.” It’s particularly common in the beverage and spirits arena. Four Loco, anyone?

A thug and his pop.

But a marketing case study is academic and benign. In Power Point, we see only clever schemes and boffo results. When you walk into a situation like I did your perspective alters. You experience the brand’s power head on and feel its energy. It may be impressive but it’s not always pretty.

Who are these people?

I was thumbing through the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly (I like to tell myself it’s a trade book and not some gossipy rag), when I came across an ad for Newport cigarettes. You know the campaign. It has run for decades. In it young actors engage in frenetic, dopey situations, often a sport or an otherwise physical activity. This particular execution featured a colorfully dressed woman flailing away on a guitar while her frizzed out haircut of a boyfriend played lead singer. Folks, there is no chance in hell either character knows the first thing about making music. My young daughters look more real playing Guitar Hero in the basement.

But the couple is having the time of their lives. The bodacious tagline calls this inane reverie “Newport Pleasure!” If you recall, the tagline used to be “Alive with Pleasure!” I imagine this clashed with the other predominant copy: “Smoking cigarettes may cause death.” My guess is that some time ago the client, Lorillard yielded to anti-smoking sentiment and the many laws restricting tobacco advertising. Sort of.

How they got away with this copy is beyond me. Yet, as a marketer, my primary question is not really how but why? Not to sound juvenile, but this campaign has to be the stupidest advertising in the world. Sure, it is in bad taste. But it was terrible when smoking was fashionable.

Look, I know it’s hard to forget smoking is deadly. Yet, pretending that’s possible, I still cannot imagine these posters do anything to sell cigarettes. I get the Marlboro Man. I appreciated the allure of Virginia Slims’, “You’ve come a long way baby.” Despite loathing it, I even understood the punkish allure of Joe Camel. But this? Does anyone, let alone the young target, relate to these vapid creatures feigning ecstasy? The wardrobe. The props. That goofy seventies typeface. Dig up an old VHS cassette. Say Car Wash. Or one of Jane Fonda’s earliest workout tapes. Those are cooler. Way cooler. Whether or not the fakeness is intended (I believe it is), matters little. It fails as camp, too. These ads are not –I repeat not- so bad they’re good.

So what gives? Why is Lorillard spending their ill-gotten money on advertising that is so damn dumb it boggles the mind?

With ad campaigns such as this I often imagine the agency art director (no need for a copywriter) as he or she sets up yet another million dollar shoot for the client. Middle-aged, making low six figures, probably ornery from years of doing hack work, the devil’s work, he or she spends the days matching second rate models to mind numbing scenarios: ping pong, apple picking, karaoke, etc… He or she has probably been using the same photographer for years. They are friends, partners in crime. They choose splendid locations, talking about the fine hotels they might stay in. Maybe they’ll bring the family, mixing business with pleasure. Newport pleasure.

At the same time, I’m keenly aware of our reality as marketers. We work for whomever on whatever. I’m grateful our current roster of clients does not make products that used legally and properly will kill you. But I know there but for the grace of the Gods of advertising go I.

What happens in Vegas…

Is Tiger Woods a naughty boy, a truly bad man or merely a very, very famous person who got caught? I learned a long time ago not to cast stones at someone for his or her indiscretions. And I won’t here. My bet is few professional athletes come out against Tiger for much the same reason. They know too well the temptations that come with being a celebrity. They know how easy it is to cross the line. After all, these are young, obscenely rich men. They are worshipped and fawned over. Millions adore these athletes (and rock stars and movie stars and politicians and so on). Adoration can take many forms, some of which are quite alluring. In their Gucci loafers, what would you do?

Whether we participate in immoral activity or not, it’s safe to say we are titillated by it. Consider our most popular TV shows and films. The Real Housewives. The Bachelor. The 40-year Old Virgin. The Hangover and Knocked Up. Adultery is the most popular topic on earth. And that’s the mainstream! Pornography was (is) by far the most lucrative market for VHS and DVD rentals. The digital age has only increased this ardor. Fantasies and their fulfillment are alive and well on the Internet.

And then there’s advertising. The byline on my blog states ‘We make you want what you don’t need.’ I could have just as easily shortened it to ‘We make you want.’ And want and want and want. Granted, lusting after a flat screen TV is not the same as coveting a comely TV star but, according to most spiritual principles, wanton want is very much a sin. Creating it can be no less of one. For obvious reasons I hope I’m wrong.

Getting back to Tiger. It seems he’s quite the player.  The pun is intended. A “player” knows how to have a good time and where to go to have one. For many of us (Tiger included), that place is Vegas. And nothing sums this up better than its notorious tagline: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Even though gambling is also a sin, I don’t think I have to point out that they are not talking about roulette.

As Woods (and many before him) found out, the Vegas hall pass for infidelity is only imaginary. (In the digital age nothing stays private.) But the advertising doesn’t make this distinction. On the contrary, the advertising would have you believe your fantasies are not only permitted in Vegas they are expected. And it does a damn good job of it. I think just about everyone on earth (men and women) winks when they hear about Bob’s trip to Vegas. And we’re the prudes! In other countries, they don’t even bat an eye.

An old boss of mine once told me that every good ad makes the consumer think they are going to get laid if only they’d use the product. He was talking about spirits advertising but in a way he was talking about all advertising. We make you want and the keenest form of want is lust.

So, to my original question: Is this hypocrisy? How can society cut down a person for participating in activities we not only advertise but also celebrate? Adam succumbed to temptation and we are no better. In the end, how we behave is our own affair, so to speak. That is until we get caught.

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