Ad Report Card: Smirnoff Ice Toasts Responsibility

So, did you cancel your plans to stay home and sit in front of Saturday Night Live and wait for the appearance of the first hard-liquor commercial to appear since NBC decided to break with other broadcast networks and allow such advertising?

Yeah, me neither. I saw all the headlines and the chat-show hand-wringing about this development, and I read analyses of NBC’s various conditions for accepting such ads. But I also noticed that the first spot would be from Smirnoff, the vodka that is one of Diageo’s brands. I thought this was odd because I’d seen about a million Smirnoff ads on television already. And I don’t mean ads on marginal cable networks or local TV stations. (Distilled-spirits makers dropped their voluntary ban on TV advertising in 1996, and spots for Bailey’s Irish Cream and Royal Crown Canadian Whiskey have run in such venues.) One of the spots I remembered even ran during the Super Bowl last year.

But I was wrong. Sort of. The commercials I’d seen, and still see routinely, were for Smirnoff Ice, apparently a malt liquor-type product with an alcohol content of around 5 percent (comparable to beer). But as others have rightly pointed out, the real effect of those ads was to promote the Smirnoff brand generally. In light of this, it seems worth taking a closer look at the series of spots that is functioning as a sort of dry run for the future of hard-liquor TV advertising. (You can see four ads through—one set in a subway, one involving a bear, one in a night club, and one that attempts a responsible-drinking theme.)

The ads: In one spot I’ve seen many times, a pack of urban hipsters commandeer a metro car (I think it’s a New York City subway train, but I’m not completely sure), set up a turntable, hang a “closed for repairs sign” (and a disco ball), and have a wild, Smirnoff Ice-fueled party. A smirky voice-over says, “Smirnoff Ice, intelligent nightlife,” then adds, “Be smart; drink responsibly.” In a similar episode, four young dudes get around the virulent pack of clubgoers massed at some nightspot’s velvet rope by sneaking through the kitchen. Once in, they shed their hairnets and other worker garb and rush the dance floor, where they party, from the look of things, like it’s about 1995.

One of the most celebrated Smirnoff Ice ads involves two camping guys who find a huge bear rummaging through their equipment—and their Smirnoff-stuffed cooler. One of the guys solves this problem by dousing his buddy in honey, which distracts the bear. “New Smirnoff Ice,” an authoritative narrator says. “Drink it responsibly.” The remaining camp guy is then shown throwing back Smirnoffs with a couple of babes. “Didn’t you have a friend?” one asks. “Yes,” he says with the smile suggesting the oblivious contentment that characters in ads like this always possess: Sated by his product of choice, he is humorously indifferent to the notion of human friendship. “Smooth move,” the narrator adds.

Finally, there’s a spot featuring a long-haired guy who shows up at a big party that for some reason reminds me of a kind of upscale, West Coast version of the one by the moon tower in Dazed and Confused. He hoists a six of Smirnoff Ice from the backseat, then takes out his bottle opener—and punctures the tires on his convertible. “Smirnoff Ice. Reminding you that whatever it takes, never drink and drive.” “Drink Intelligently,” the screen says.

Here’s to responsibility! This last spot is particularly interesting to me because NBC is playing up how central responsibility is to the way its handling its liquor clients. Apparently these advertisers will have to start off with four months of “social responsibility messages.” Now, “don’t drink and drive” is a socially responsible message. On the other hand, the Smirnoff Ice ad that pretends to deliver this message also suggests that its protagonist, aided by a six-pack, is about to embark on a journey that will leave him not just too drunk to drive, but so thoroughly besotted that he can’t even tell as much anymore. (What a lightweight!) Is that a socially responsible message or not?

Alcohol advertising constantly walks this line, balancing images of wild abandon with exhortations to behave wisely (or “intelligently,” as Smirnoff has it). That’s why the main messages of the other Smirnoff Ice commercials involve fun, humor, music, and sex. There’s essentially no way out of this problem: No one drinks in order to enhance their capacity for social responsibility. (Although I’d be interested if some spirit-maker decided to just go with this theme and produce a product called something like Highly Responsible Bourbon, with a marketing campaign to match.) And while I certainly don’t encourage the proliferation of marketing messages that, say, encourage underage drinking, I’m also kind of skeptical of the idea that makers of distilled spirits ought to be held to some radically different standard than makers of beer.

What the higher standards accomplish has little to do with actually affecting the social responsibility of anyone watching. I think the real aim is to make the networks and the advertisers feel better about themselves. But even on that score, I’m not sure the new standards are the answer—I have a feeling a vodka martini might prove more effective.