How a smart Ketel One campaign alludes to the recession.

Advertising deconstructed.
Nov. 30 2009 12:20 PM

Who Drinks Ketel One in a Recession?

The smartest way for ads to allude to the economy.

The Spot:A group of handsome young men sit around a table, playing a friendly game of cards. "There was a time when substance was style," says the voice-over. "There was a time when men were men. It was last night." The well-dressed, impeccably groomed fellows swirl the ice cubes in their drinks, clink their glasses together, and break into warm laughter. "Ketel One," the announcer concludes. "Gentlemen, this is vodka."

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.

Soon after the financial crisis came to a head last fall, television commercials began to openly address the weak economy. A Hyundai Super Bowl ad in early 2009 proclaimed, "We're all in this together," and offered a money-back guarantee if you bought a Hyundai and then lost your job. A Monster.com ad lampooned lavish CEO perks—brilliantly using a taxidermied moose to illustrate the inequities of contemporary capitalism. By spring, Allstate ads were declaring it "back to basics" time and asserting that "meatloaf and Jenga can actually be more fun than reservations and box seats."

First of all: I've eaten meatloaf. I've played Jenga. You're not fooling me, Allstate.

But more important: Is it wise for an ad to acknowledge the recession? Raising the topic could easily just make people anxious while reminding them that they're trying to save money. Perhaps that's OK if the ad is for economically priced cars, or for a job search site, or for an insurance company hawking services that are more need-to-have than want-to-have. But what about an ad for a discretionary, quasi-luxury product like a high-end vodka?

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This new campaign from Ketel One doesn't, on its face, make any reference to the economic downturn. But I'd argue it's an effective and fully internalized response to the crisis. It seems to signal the next, more evolved step in recession marketing.

Vodka has long been a category ruled by trends. The distilled spirit itself has little in the way of distinctive flavor (the better the vodka, the less you taste it), which means that packaging and marketing play enormous roles in shaping consumer preferences. Absolut, for instance, became one of the best-selling vodkas in America on the basis of an ad campaign that played on its silly name and the silhouette of its bottle. Grey Goose later overtook Absolut, becoming the top-selling superpremium vodka brand through a careful stratagem: outrageous overcharging—also known as the "if it costs this much, it must be awesome" ploy.

The Grey Goose playbook worked when the brand launched in 1997, in the era of ostentatious dot-com spending. It continued to work when the Jimmy-Choos-and-cosmos aesthetic of the Sex and the City took full cultural flight in the early 2000s. Solidly established at that point, the brand chugged along through the housing bubble. But now, with a crushing recession on, the smug and flashy Goose suddenly finds itself badly out of step with the times. An opportunity has emerged for another superpremium vodka to seize the zeitgeist.

Enter Ketel One—a family company from Holland that's been around since 1691. Its most recent marketing effort in America had been a series of enigmatic print ads (mostly text, in an ornate gothic font with a lot of white space). Its Goose-like price point, and proud heritage, implied its quality. But it lacked any well-defined image. When the multinational liquor behemoth Diageo bought a major stake in Ketel One last year, the company brought along its deep pockets and its predilection for spending money on television airtime. These Ketel One spots, which launched in May, are the brand's very first TV ads in the United States.

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