Crown Royal's new ads are perfectly suited for the recession.

Advertising deconstructed.
Feb. 23 2009 7:05 AM

Brother, Can You Spare Some Whiskey?

Crown Royal's new ads are perfectly suited for the recession.

The Spot: A young guy frequents a pool hall. He makes all the shots and wins every game but leaves early each night. "Where's he go?" asks the announcer. "His old man—the original master." We see the young guy show up at his pop's house, where the two play some pool and enjoy a whiskey together. "For every king, a mentor," says the announcer. "For every king, a crown. Crown Royal." (Click here to watch the ad.)

Seth Stevenson Seth Stevenson

Seth Stevenson is a frequent contributor to Slate. He is the author of Grounded: A Down to Earth Journey Around the World.

In 1996, Crown Royal aired the first hard-liquor ad to appear on American broadcast television, defying the self-imposed ban the distilled-spirits industry had observed since 1948. The ad shows a dog carrying a newspaper in its mouth, with the caption "Obedience school graduate." When a second dog shows up, carrying a bottle of Crown Royal, the caption changes to "Valedictorian."

Advertisement

That's about as unprovocative as advertising gets. No doubt some TV viewers feared a commercial for the hard stuff would be a miasma of swank and sin. But anyone familiar with Crown Royal's M.O. would have realized there was little cause for concern. Crown Royal's brand image—then and now—feels closer to Old Spice than to Axe.

This is partly a function of the drink itself. Crown Royal is a blended whiskey, and there's long been a sort of philosophical divide between the "brown spirits" (whiskey, bourbon, cognac) and the "white spirits" (vodka, gin, rum). Brown spirits are warmer on the throat and heavier on the stomach. White spirits are better suited for mixing into light, refreshing—sometimes froofy—cocktails. Because the two categories tend to attract very different drinkers, they tend to use very different marketing imagery.

Consider a recent TV ad for Grey Goose vodka, titled "Oysters." It features glimmering black-and-white cinematography and takes place aboard a two-masted yacht full of beautiful women slurping mollusks. There is no dialogue, but the visuals strive to convey a sense of luxury, possibility, and, above all, sex. (More tongue-in-cheek but still opulence-obsessed: A recent campaign for Tanqueray gin centered on a nattily attired, British-accented spokesman who is forever partying with gorgeous women—when he's not hiring a gem cutter to sculpt his ice cubes.)

Ads for brown spirits, by contrast, are far more apt to emphasize a storied heritage (as in this spot for Johnnie Walker and this one for Jack Daniel's) or exacting quality standards (as in any number of ads that fetishize a glass of rich, brown liquid as an announcer rhapsodizes about oak casks and careful aging and special batches and blah blah blah). Perhaps it's because fewer women drink brown spirits, and men are more susceptible to a stuffy pitch about a drink's distillation process. Perhaps it's because brown spirits seem to elicit a weightier, more somber flavor of drunkenness. But whatever the reason, I feel we've come to associate white spirits with DJ'd club parties and expensive nights on the town, while brown spirits are for barstool conversations and quiet nightcaps. (The exception to this rule: Courvoisier and other cognacs have—I think in part because they're the most expensive thing you can order at a bar—become synonymous with hip-hop braggadocio.)

All of which brings us to this new Crown Royal spot, titled "Billiards." Literally zero women appear in this ad. The two sets are a dimly lit pool hall and a wood-paneled rec room in a modest house. This ad is in no way about possibility—it's about comfortable routine. Likewise, it's not about cherchez-les-hookups—it's about male friendships and father-son bonding.

Remarkably, both "Billiards" (in which the dad teaches his son everything he knows) and "Set" (the other spot in Crown Royal's current campaign, in which an old jazz cat takes a promising young trumpet player under his wing) center on narratives about intergenerational tutelage. This seems a smart way to reach two demographic groups at once—flattering the older guys as teachers and the younger guys as skillful protégés. It's also a clever means of, without getting overly schmaltzy, hinting at the deep, emotional connection two dudes can share over a tumbler of booze.

The price points for Grey Goose and Crown Royal aren't all that far apart. At the liquor store, you'll pay about $29.99 for a fifth of the vodka and about $24.99 for a fifth of the whiskey. At a bar, drink by drink, they may well cost the same. Yet one brand is celebrating ostentatious wealth, while the other is paying tribute to brotherhood and remembering where you came from. If Grey Goose's promise is that you'll get laid on a yacht, Crown Royal's promise is that your life will brim with purpose and community.

Which approach would you rather bet on these days? Grey Goose sold oceans of vodka in the boom years and became a signature drink of cosmopolitan excess. But the boom is over, and times have changed. America seems poised to transition into a brown spirits state of mind.

Grade: B+. These Crown Royal spots are stylishly filmed, neatly constructed narratives. But more than the execution, I'm impressed with the strategy. This is Crown Royal's first TV campaign in five years. Why now? Yes, airtime has gotten cheaper. But I'm also fairly certain Crown Royal recognized a zeitgeist opportunity. This is a moment where the brand's established image—down to earth, unflashy—meshed rather smoothly with external events. In uncertain times, vignettes about people sticking together and helping each other out become suddenly relevant. This is a campaign that seems well timed and conceived to take advantage of a shifting national mood.

Got an ad you'd like to see reviewed? Send your suggestions to adreportcard@gmail.com.

TODAY IN SLATE

Foreigners

The World’s Politest Protesters

The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.

The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 4:58 PM The Religious Right Is Not Happy With Republicans  

How Did the Royals Win Despite Bunting So Many Times? Bunting Is a Terrible Strategy.

Catacombs Where You Can Stroll Down Hallways Lined With Corpses

Homeland Is Good Again! For Now.

Crime

Operation Backbone

How White Boy Rick, a legendary Detroit cocaine dealer, helped the FBI uncover brazen police corruption.

Music

How Even an Old Hipster Can Age Gracefully

On their new albums, Leonard Cohen, Robert Plant, and Loudon Wainwright III show three ways.

The One Fact About Ebola That Should Calm You: It Spreads Slowly

Piper Kerman on Why She Dressed Like a Hitchcock Heroine for Her Prison Sentencing

Trending News Channel
Oct. 1 2014 1:25 PM Japanese Cheerleader Robots Balance and Roll Around on Balls
  News & Politics
Foreigners
Oct. 1 2014 6:41 PM The World’s Politest Protesters The Occupy Central demonstrators are courteous. That’s actually what makes them so dangerous.
  Business
Moneybox
Oct. 1 2014 2:16 PM Wall Street Tackles Chat Services, Shies Away From Diversity Issues 
  Life
Outward
Oct. 1 2014 6:02 PM Facebook Relaxes Its “Real Name” Policy; Drag Queens Celebrate
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 1 2014 5:11 PM Celebrity Feminist Identification Has Reached Peak Meaninglessness
  Slate Plus
Behind the Scenes
Oct. 1 2014 3:24 PM Revelry (and Business) at Mohonk Photos and highlights from Slate’s annual retreat.
  Arts
Brow Beat
Oct. 1 2014 6:39 PM Spoiler Special: Transparent
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 1 2014 6:59 PM EU’s Next Digital Commissioner Thinks Keeping Nude Celeb Photos in the Cloud Is “Stupid”
  Health & Science
Science
Oct. 1 2014 4:03 PM Does the Earth Really Have a “Hum”? Yes, but probably not the one you’re thinking.
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 1 2014 5:19 PM Bunt-a-Palooza! How bad was the Kansas City Royals’ bunt-all-the-time strategy in the American League wild-card game?