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?

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.

"We took a slightly different approach for the vodka category," says Toby Whitmoyer, brand marketing director for Ketel One. "We were going on the air for the first time. We wanted to introduce the product as something relevant to this moment."

While a recent Grey Goose ad, titled "Oysters," featured beautiful women eating shellfish on a yacht (we might term this the "I'm on a boat!" school of advertising), Ketel One has steered clear of these dated luxury tropes. Yes, the guys in the Ketel One ads are wearing suits, but there's no flashy peacocking going on here. No yachts, no limos, no pulsing dance floors.

"It's not a status evening," says Whitmoyer. "We're moving away from the superheated club scenes of the past. The world is less easily mastered now." Reflecting the fact that tighter budgets mean we're drinking less at bars these days and more in our own homes, one of the Ketel One spots shows the guys playing a card game around a table. Even the ad that portrays a night on the town is set in a relatively low-key bar, not a jam-packed club with a velvet rope. There's something almost chastened in the use of these contexts. The shifting national mood is recognized, but not in a manner so explicit and forthright that it might bum viewers out.

Remarkably, Ketel One's contribution to the "social responsibility" alcohol-marketing genre (encouraged by the industry's self-regulating guidelines) is a perfect fit with the rest of the campaign. The ad titled "Street" shows the guys waiting in the rain to flag a taxi at the end of a night of drinking, and then gallantly ceding the cab when a flock of women arrives on the scene. Most alcohol brands go off-message when they do the right thing—bringing the mood down momentarily with a somber "we urge you to drink responsibly" spot—before plunging right back into bread-and-butter scenes of joyful, horny abandon. But the very core of Ketel One's image in this campaign is gentlemanly restraint.

Grade: B. These ads seem tailor-made for our era. But I wonder: Why do they exclude female drinkers? From their tagline ("Gentlemen, this is vodka") to their casting (all dudes), these ads are a strictly XY affair. We've already seen Sarah Jessica Parker turn the vodka-based cosmo into a star. Why miss out when Kristen Stewart starts drinking White Russians?

I'll be hoisting some White Russians of my own as the holidays near. And with the year coming to an end, its time for another "Ads We Hate" compendium, in which Ad Report Card rounds up your least favorite spots. Which ads have dismayed, disturbed, and disgusted you in the past 12 months? Send your suggestions to adreportcard@gmail.com.