“I know – Let’s put this shit in a can!”

A while back I was tasked with developing campaigns for a caffeinated malt liquor. It shall go nameless. The idea for this heinous concoction could only come from the minds of a large brewery desperate to appeal to young people. Very young people. Probably south of legal drinking age. After all, who else would drink it besides kids who a) want to get really drunk and b) want to stay upright?

“You can sleep when you’re thirty,” was one of our headlines. “Go Long,” was one of our taglines.

Regardless of your opinion of said creative, that was the strategy. Oh, we tried to make the advertising as cool as possible. Designed the hell out of those headlines. Made them look like graffiti or tattoos. Can you say Ed Hardy?

Fact is, we were doomed before we even left the briefing. It was all so messed up. Selling rocket fuel to young douchebags simply sucks. The best we could do was try to tell the truth and be funny. And because the truth is inherently gross the joke was on us.

Some products are like that. Their DNA is so strong in a bad way that its stink cannot be overcome. Taco Bell continues to churn out gut melting travesties of Mexican food and we wonder why, with a few exceptions, the advertising turns our stomach. That the chain is sometimes successful has more to do with marijuana than marketing. Broke and stoned teen-agers gotta eat.

Take this new campaign for something called “Lime-a-Rita.” In the commercial, an art gallery is transformed into a party after two young ladies are served. A statue comes to life and starts boogying. Oy.

Of course this ad is lacking. The product is. Starting with its name. I don’t even know how one begins to tell the truth about this goo. It’s Z-grade tequila (and only a little) mired in green soda pop. I’d rather just pour Cuervo in a glass of Mountain Do. If truth be told, I did a lot of that back in the day. One of many reasons why I don’t drink anymore.

Kids will be kids. They’ll mix shit with shots. The problem is when brands try to do it for you. Red Bull and Vodka is popular but not sold that way. Some drone in sector G of the brewery want to create a caffeinated beer and sell it at 7-11, the agency is going to give him exactly the advertising it deserves.

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.

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Above tweet says it all (plus love from Stu!)

After 15 years, Johnnie Walker (Diageo) is leaving its incumbent agency, the much-heralded BBH, for Anomaly. That’s a big deal for two reasons. First off, fifteen years is a long-ass time for any client to stay with an agency. The other reason is over those years, Johnnie Walker & BBH mined plenty of marketing gold together; its theme, “Keep Walking,” reached a zenith with The Man Who Walked Around the World, featured below…

Clearly, it’s a great piece of work, the resounding bag pipes indicative of the beautiful music these two companies made together.

But, you know, I have a special perspective.

Fifteen years ago, I was copywriter and fledgling creative director at Leo Burnett in Chicago, on the Johnnie Walker business. During that time I produced two campaigns for the portfolio: “Seeing Red” for Red Label and “Welcome to Civilization” for Black Label.

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While we were proud of those efforts, Diageo ultimatel put the global account in review. In an epic cluster f-ck we lost the business to a most-worthy opponent, BBH. Sir John Hegarty (is he a Knight?) lead his agency’s efforts and, being a UK run pitch, it’s safe to say we had no chance.

Still, we fought like hell. And, without bitterness, I like to think we came up with a campaign as good as anything BBH did. Their idea, as I mentioned above, and everybody in advertising knows, was “Keep Walking.” Our line: “Walk the Walk.”

Obviously, we were working from essentially the same strategy. If you’re taking notes the tip of our strategic spear was “masculine progress.” The wordplay with Walker was impossible to resist.

Regrettably, I didn’t save our spec work. But like BBH, a key part of the launch campaign featured JW’s iconic walking man logo. Which line do you like better? My opinion, one could make a case for either. Alas, our case would not be heard.

“Keep Walking” vs “Walk the Walk”

And now Johnnie is walking… away…again


“Wake me up when we’re cool.”

What is it about spirit’s that leads to advertising that makes fun of people? Well, I’ll tell you. Since advertisers are not really allowed to talk about the intoxicating effect alcohol has on folks copywriters are left with two options: 1) taste and 2) badge value.

How this usually plays out in the massive beer category is that crappy brews (Bud Light, Miller Lite, Coors Light, etc) create advertising featuring communities of young, comely and predictable partygoers, who are “up for whatever” and dig silly new bottle designs and “frost brewing” or other made up brewing techniques. Watered down taste is mitigated by the beverages ability to enable your inner douchebag. I worked on these brands and am guilty of perpetrating such goofy myths. I still remember the copy: “The clean, fresh taste won’t fill you up and never lets you down.” Quality beers like Guinnes have a better creative history, either forging terrific myths or speaking to history, heritage and authenticity. Generally speaking, spirits follow similar narratives.

Insert blue joke here…

But within these story arcs we see an ever-widening genre, one that mocks or belittles groups of people who just don’t get it. The “it” changes all the time. When I worked on Johnnie Walker Black and Red, I created two campaigns that endeavored to define “it” for each product. For the more expensive Black label “it” was “Welcome to Civilization.” Black Label drinkers were gentlemen. Everyone else wasn’t. For the cheaper Red Label “it” was an attack on political correctness. According to my ads, these drinkers blew cigar smoke in your face and were proud to be red-blooded men. Or some shit…


COPY: “Our drinkers are men of depth and substance. Which puts our advertising agency at somewhat of a disadvantage.”


That’s telling ’em!

And now we see ads for various spirits taking to task “hipsters” and status seekers. This is tricky. By definition hipsters are cool. That means “it” already is a badge. But for one reason or another this particular “it” has become tiresome. Skinny jeans. Plaid shirts. Ironic beards. Fedoras. Talk about low-hanging fruit. Yet, the attack is specious. Taking down cool people to be cool makes one just as douche-y as the target, casting the hero as a hater, and haters; well they’re lame.


Ooh, the tagline has a cuss word…

Now have a look at this new campaign, from Smirnoff.

We see the bar literally turn from bad trendy to good trendy. Huh? Other than a few more black guys and brighter lighting I can’t tell the difference between the cool kids and the douchebags. I don’t drink anymore but if I did I wouldn’t be caught drunk in either of these places. I didn’t like to drink and dance at the same time. And with that racket how could I hear myself lie?


Next up we’ll see a campaign that celebrates dive bars and sleazy authenticity. And after that one that makes fun of it.

For an extraordinary article on “Hipsters and the Dead End to Civilization” read this:

“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.