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