Booze wars have few winners

Canadian distillers have come a long way since their first tentative steps into television advertising in 1998. In fact, as we ended the year 2001, spirit ads on the tube were as common as rumours about Labatt's mysterious new agency.

Canadian distillers have come a long way since their first tentative steps into television advertising in 1998. In fact, as we ended the year 2001, spirit ads on the tube were as common as rumours about Labatt’s mysterious new agency.

C.J. Helie, executive vice-president of Spirits Canada (formerly the Association of Canadian Distillers) says the industry’s ad spend was up 40% for the 12 months ending November 2001 versus the same period a year earlier. He adds that 70% of the distillers’ advertising dollars are going to TV and that television spending is up 112% over 2000.

Some of the brands prominent on television are Bailey’s, DiSarrano, Smirnoff, Canadian Club, Captain Morgan, Crown Royal, and Weiser’s.

Distillers didn’t jump quickly into television advertising, Helie says, because it’s a very expensive vehicle for the industry, simply because of slim margins.

‘With 83% of every retail sale being tax, it really puts us at a competitive disadvantage versus most of the people we’re competing against. For every retail dollar spent, a brewer gets to keep 50 cents: we get to keep 17 cents.

‘That’s a lot less money to reinvest in your brands.’

(Domestic beer is taxed at 55% and domestic wine at 65%.)

Distillers won the right to advertise on TV in June 1995 when the federal court ruled that a CRTC regulation prohibiting spirit-based beverages containing more than 7% alcohol by volume was invalid because beverages with higher alcohol content, such as beer and wine, had free rein to do so.

It wasn’t until 1998 that distillers tested the waters with closed-captioning sponsorship. In 1999, 30-second spots started to hit the airwaves and in 2000 there was a notable increase in the number of brands taking the plunge.

Rick Fiamelli, VP of marketing for Seagram Canada, says it took some time for distillers to get their strategies in place and determine that television was where they should go with their brands.

Since the industry doesn’t have a lot of money, he says, distillers have had to be very strategic and careful about moving their dollars into television. ‘We’re in the image building business. If your brand is going to be in a leadership position, you have to be in [television]. Even though there’s a lot of fragmentation of media today, television is probably still your best opportunity to build image in a short period of time.’

‘There must be seven or eight brands right now using the medium in a fairly substantial way for our industry. It’s still relatively light when you compare it to the big retailers or to beer, for example, but it’s starting to build. You’re starting to see the main drive brands in each category using the medium and those brands are definitely strengthening.’

Consumers seem to be taking the increase of TV ads for beverage alcohol in stride. Janet Feasby, director of public affairs, communications and standards for Advertising Standards Canada (ASC), says there haven’t been a lot of complaints about alcohol beverage advertising on TV, and she doesn’t expect that to change.

In 2000, ASC received 100 complaints in the alcohol beverage category. Sixty-four of those were upheld about 11 ads. The main culprit was a newspaper and outdoor campaign for beer from La Brasserie Stroh (Quebec), which was censured for its alleged demeaning depiction of women and inappropriate use of sexuality.

Perhaps the number of regulatory bodies all spirits advertising has to pass is the reason for the clean record. In addition to pre-clearance by ASC using CRTC guidelines, advertising must also be approved by provincial liquor and gaming boards.

Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) Canada doesn’t have the same optimistic view of spirits advertising as ASC does. The national organization of volunteers against impaired driving believes that since ASC took over ad preclearance from the CRTC in late 1996, it has been easier for alcohol marketers to advertise to people under drinking age.

Andrew Murie, national executive director of MADD Canada, says, ‘There are certain [ads] where the thrust of it all is young people having a good time. They give the public the impression that the only way you can have a good time is to consume their products and you’ll meet somebody from the opposite sex. Those are the ones that give us the greatest concern because they send the wrong message to young people.’

The main problem, Murie says, is that unlike the CRTC clearance board, ASC has no power to remove ads from broadcast but can only make recommendations. In addition, the ASC complaint system is not as easy or expeditious as the CRTC’s. He says ASC doesn’t act until it has a number of complaints and then consumers must chase it all the way through the process to get the complaint dealt with.

But just because there hasn’t been a major backlash to the increase in spirits advertising doesn’t mean all brands are making an impact. Below, advertising experts tell us which TV spots hit the mark, and which don’t:

John Farquhar, president and chief creative officer, Young & Rubicam Canada, Toronto

‘I find the work I’m seeing tends to feel like a lot of beer advertising out there. A little bit of the sense of party conviviality.

‘The best work I’ve seen out there was for Smirnoff Ice where they take over a subway train. There’s a group that puts together an entire nightclub inside a subway car – and it all happens in fast-paced motion. They bring in lights, a DJ and it all gets created in 30 seconds.

‘Conversely, some of the worst work I’ve seen out there is a spot built around a rather lame bar scenario which becomes slightly more exciting when somebody orders something with Captain Morgan’s rum in it. There’s this scene in a dark alley where Captain Morgan himself is leaving the place like Zorro, like my job is done here and I’m off into the night.

‘The Bailey’s spot [where the woman mimes her drink order] is very focused around the product and what the product does but something about it makes me uncomfortable. I guess it’s because the people seem to be acting kind of dopey. There’s something about the bar being so loud – and it doesn’t look like a loud bar – but apparently the music is so loud in this place, this over-lit bar, that you can’t possibly hear the other person.

‘The idea doesn’t work, though, because it just looks like a 5:30 crowd coming in for an after-work drink. It doesn’t look like a dark, dank club that’s going at 200 decibels, so I think there’s a little confusion in the execution.

‘[Most brands] seem to be [making] rather expected formulaic advertising attempts a la selling beer. It seems to be kind of ‘been there, done that’ with work that has a sort of 1980s mentality to it – outside of the Canadian Club stuff.

‘The ['Ouch' execution] really captured Canadian Club’s international appeal. It really does establish it as a ‘world’ liquor as opposed to something that is just a local party liquid. I think there’s a real sense of camaraderie that comes across in that.

‘I like the execution they put together for it. They’ve got a sense of humour about themselves. It really is about the world. Anywhere you go, anywhere in the world, you’re going to find that familiar drink. It has that sensibility. There’s something about it that’s a little more accessible. It’s like VISA or other products that are world products, you position them as such.’

Rick Fiamelli, VP marketing, Seagram Canada, Toronto

‘I think like any medium, the more innovative and breakthrough you can be with your creative, the more successful you’ll be in communicating your message and building your image.

‘[For] Crown Royal (a Seagram brand) we took an approach that was very different than anyone else was taking in the category. We did it using a lot of consumer insights we had gleaned over the past year.

‘When you go into a bar, most people ask for a generic rye and coke or rye on the rocks as opposed to the brand name. We want people to know the brand [and] to order it that way in a bar. It’s actually portrayed that way literally [in the Crown Royal 'Senses' execution]. We know the Crown Royal brand is top of mind. It’s now over 30% awareness, which is phenomenal given we’ve got a 15% market share.

‘Captain Morgan has come from a different positioning years ago. He was a true character, a true buccaneer, a true pirate. He was portrayed on the label in maybe an older sense.

‘We want him to become young, contemporary. So when you see a Captain Morgan ad and it seems similar to advertising for beer and other spirits – that’s what we’re looking for. We want Captain Morgan to be and look and feel the same as beer. We don’t want it necessarily to be this old pirate from the past.

‘We just have to get the word out, that’s why we use TV.’

Rick Davis, national creative director, Bates Canada, Toronto

‘The Canadian Club [spots] and Smirnoff seem to be more relevant.

‘There’s been a tradition in this particular category, since being allowed to go on air, of following a format of cleavage communications where a guy meets a woman in bar. She’s always dressed in an upscale, low-slung skirt and he’s always dressed in a leather jacket. Either she shows her cleavage, blows him a kiss or rubs his leg and he all of a sudden loses his IQ and becomes rather goofy, runs to the bar and then we go to the standard pour shot. And then there’s some kind of resolve where the guy continues with his low-IQ presentation and the women giggle and laugh at his foolishness and then you’re out.

‘That’s been around for quite a while.

‘On the Canadian Club [campaign], they’re getting more into insights about the brand, leaning more into beer territory in terms of the celebration of universal ‘guy’ behaviour. That’s probably a wiser area to go into because it doesn’t make the communication look typical and it seems more insightful.’

Marc Stoiber, VP, executive creative director,

Grey Worldwide, Toronto

‘I find the advertising is all going over well-trod ground. I think the Smirnoff Ice [subway car] spot is a perfect example. You add this brand to something and it creates a fun party. It looks nice but it’s so predictable. Insert booze here and it creates a fun time, like with the Bailey’s ad. You have Bailey’s, he can’t hear her [drink request] so she acts out this very suggestive [scene]. You add booze and it brings sex to the party. That’s what the Bailey’s ad says to me.

‘I like the Canadian Club ['Ouch' execution] because I think it has the insight that guys all around the world understand the same stuff, and CC is part of that lingo. It’s a bit fresh.

‘What I like about it too is that it’s very polarizing because guys will laugh and women will cringe that it’s a bunch of six-year-old boys – but that’s part of the charm. Six-year-old guy humour and I like it, and I feel closer to the brand.

‘Ultimately booze is such a parity product that you’re going to buy what you’re going buy. So if you can leave an impression that is even remotely distinctive that would help.’

Rick Kemp, SVP, executive creative director, J. Walter Thompson, Toronto

‘My observation of most of the booze advertising is it’s typically young people dancing in a bar. As is the case with all other categories, taking it out of its expected visual context is a good place to start. Otherwise, they all tend to merge together.

‘In the booze category, you can’t suggest that booze makes you happier, smarter or better looking, or that you want it in any way, shape or form – that there’s any kind of dependency, need or desire for the product.

‘So what you’re left with is trying to create an image around the brand, saying that if you’re like these people or you like this image, this is your product by association. You’ve sort of got one hand tied behind your back going in compared to traditional advertisers.

‘Creating outstanding spirits advertising is about the same as any other category, finding some real truth about the drinker and presenting it in a fresh, surprising way. The category is relatively new to broadcast in this country so there may be some lag as far as seeing work that is different. Once we get over that initial first wave of advertising maybe we’ll see work that is more surprising in the category.’