The unsavory taste of vodka ads

Vodka ads have turned sour lately. So maybe this starch-based beverage lacks the class of, say, vintage port wine. But a few weeks ago, Belvedere gave a new definition to bad taste when it tried to promote the hilarity of sexual assault via Twitter and Facebook:

This being 2012, most people were not amused at the sight of a horrified woman with a frat boy grabbing her from behind and the suggestive headline. Belvedere deleted the posts and apologized. Sort of. (“Okay, okay, sorry. Sorry you’re so sensitive!”)

Eventually, senior staff came forward with a more convincing apology and promised to donate to RAINN, the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network.

Belvedere isn’t the only one who gives a bad rep to vodkas.

This past Christmas, the self-proclaimed “quirky” Wodka put up a billboard  in Manhattan’s Upper West Side, home to a large Jewish population, promising straight up “Christmas quality, Hanukkah pricing.”

The Anti-Defamation League and others were offended by the anti-Semitic sentiment. Wodka removed the billboard and apologized.

But it didn’t mean it. A couple months later, in February 2012, Wodka erected a new billboard in a Bronx neighborhood that’s been trying to clean up its reputation. This time, the brand took a stab at hookers. “Escort quality. Hooker pricing” it read.

Community leaders were appalled and the billboard was taken down, again.

A New York Times article called this strategy shock advertising, “intended to draw attention by generating controversy…common among brands that are small or do not spend much on marketing.”

Something must be in that New York water. A couple of years ago, New York-based Georgi vodka plastered photos of bikini-clad bottoms with their logo on Brooklyn buses.

When some Brooklynites protested, Georgi models hit the streets, demanding that the MTA “butt out” of their advertising.

By now, our culture is desensitized to alcohol ads using sex to peddle its wares, or parading women’s body parts in subservient positions that border on risky, rather than risque.

Advertising and public relations practitioners operate by codes of professional ethics. Looking at these ads, nobody would have guessed they abide by standards of public service and high ethical standards.

The Good Old Days

Just a few decades ago, vodka ads were classy. Well, more classy. They had hats.

… and lady astronauts with antennas, a testament to their advanced physics degrees, perhaps.

Even Woody Allen was there — more likely to offend by his incessant griping.

Meanwhile, back in Russia…

Vodka’s been popularized in Russia, where water and vodka have a mere one-letter difference: vodka once meant “little water.” Are the Russians to blame for raunchy American ads? Let’s take a look.

Some Russian vodka ads go for the low blow: camping and lakes.

Others extoll rest and a hot bath after a day of manual labor.

Nekkid ladies? Nope, gentlemen. Caviar. The expensive kind.

Vodka gives Russian mariners that extra kick. Be back soon… (note: this ad was the brand’s finalist and not necessarily the official choice.)

Putin’s vodka “Putinka” resembles a Russian hymn, not a silicone breast.

Even Sylvester Stallone is there. His Jewish great-grandmother hails from Odessa, so the ad invoked patriotism: “There’s a little bit of Russian in all of us.”

Keep it classy

Mother Russia did not export the raunchiness along with the vodka. Yes, a picture of a placid lake is less titillating than a drunk supermodel. Sex sells. But vulgarity does not. All it does is offend and alienate consumers.

Beverages, both fancy and welfare-priced, should stay away from cheap advertising. Fundamentally, it’s about not being a sexist pig and upholding some cultural decency. But there’s more. When you reach down for that industrial-sized plastic canister on the bottom shelf, the last thing you need is to feel that way.

9 thoughts on “The unsavory taste of vodka ads

    • Ha ha! Well, I did do an abbreviated version of this for a class presentation. Will inquire. 🙂 Any culinary school or a wine tasting class could certainly benefit from your blog’s research. Thanks for reading!

  1. anna says:

    fascinating analysis, masha. shows two completely different meanings attached to vodka! i still remember that awesome documentary you showed me.

    • Thanks, Anna! And yes, the Persuaders was eye eye-opening and a little daunting, wasn’t it? To be honest, there was a recent Russian ad for Ledokol (“Ice Breaker” – classy) that tried to rip off American ads in hopes to “be different.” But it got a lot of backlash in Russian social media.

  2. Mashenka, While, as always, your blog is interesting and beyond well researched, i’ve got to say, i find nothing offensive about the American ads except for the first one you show with the “goes down smoothly”. The Wodka ones are particularly non-offensive and i think the backlash against them is an example of total over-sensitivity and political correctness gone awry. Most of my more devoutly (conservatively) Jewish friends found the Wodka ad re: hanukkah prices hilarious and the reality is there is such a thing as hooker versus escort, it is simply an acknowledgment of reality. I just cannot find anything wrong with those ads. In my opinion they make their point perfectly.

    • Sonechka – thank you for your comment (and yes, this was “researched.” :)) Like you said, most of these ads are hilarious or racy in a way our culture has come to accept it. It comes down to what image a brand wants to project to the public and will the image serve its interests. With Wodka, it is doubtful that a billboard about hookers would bode well in HP neighborhood of San Francisco or some parts of Oakland, for instance. And the butts of Georgi offended a very religious Hasidic population. They all, consequently, spoke out. Yes, political correctness can go too far. But communities also have the power to mold their image, like those that boycott Starbucks or American Apparel coming to town, or ads that go against their beliefs.

      But back to vodka – of course, a lake is not as exciting as Wodka’s concepts. They are hilarious!

  3. Good point re: communities having the power to mold their image. And yes I can only imagine some of these ads in parts of Oakland or SF; people would likely flip out. I just disagree with whoever said “vulgarity does not sell”, not seeing the comment now but remember seeing it previously in response to your blog entry. Vulgarity absolutely does sell; and you are once again right, our culture has come to accept it. Very glad you are taking a look at these things and sharing with the world. Always enjoy your blog!

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