Ad Report Card

Pushing Gin

The foppish weirdo who wants you to drink Tanqueray.

“Tony Sinclair”

The Spot: We’re at an upscale soiree. In the kitchen, we see an exquisitely dressed man holding a cocktail shaker. “It’s no coincidence,” he says with a British accent, “that the first letter in the word ‘martini’ is … mmmmmmmm.” He bursts into an urbane guffaw, accompanied by a cocktail-shaking dance. “I’m Tony Sinclair,” he tells us, and then delivers his tagline: “Ready to Tanqueray?” (Click here to see the ad.)

I always get a tiny bit excited at the debut of a new spokes-character. So much promise, so much uncertainty. Sometimes (as with the ill-fated Mr. Wendy) we barely meet them before they vanish from our lives forever. Other times (as with the invincible Brawny Man) they hang around for decades, enduring the occasional makeover, re-entering our consumer consciousness from time to time. It’s still too soon to tell whether Tony Sinclair is here for the long haul. But for now, we can say hello, welcome him into the pop-culture universe, and give him a good once-over. Just what does Tanqueray have in mind here? How is this foppish hipster supposed to sell gin?

Keep in mind that Tony is not the first Tanqueray spokes-character. You may remember Mr. Jenkins—a white-haired, well-dressed gent who appeared on billboards and in print ads beginning in 1994. The idea behind Jenkins was to hedge Tanqueray’s demographic bets. The character appealed to the liquor’s core customers: old white dudes. But the ads, which used a cool-looking photo-collage technique, were intended to draw in younger drinkers. It’s hard to say if it worked—this was in the midst of the microbrew craze, and young people just weren’t into spirits—but after a few years Mr. Jenkins was retired with little fanfare.

Now we meet Tony Sinclair. This campaign (there are four spots so far; in my favorite, Tony enlists a jeweler to precision-cut his ice cubes) is the initial salvo from Tanqueray’s new ad agency, Grey Worldwide. Grey was hired last year, and no doubt the creatives there spent long months crafting Tony, meticulously honing his back story and sifting through audition tapes in a hunt for the perfect face. What do the end results tell us?

First of all, Tanqueray wants back in the game. Their marketing for the past few years has been bland and forgettable, and the brashness of the Tony Sinclair character is a bold play for attention. The commercials (which are in fact the first U.S. television ads that Tanqueray has ever run) already have people talking: Bloggers are giving the spots mixed reviews—some find them annoying, others think they’re catchy and smooth.

As for the man himself, he’s meant to appeal to a younger crowd. No old white dudes here. Diageo, Tanqueray’s parent company, didn’t respond to my inquiries about these ads, but reports in the trade press suggest that Tony is aimed at guys between 25 and 35 (understandable, since 65 percent of all gin drinkers are male). Tony is sophisticated and upscale, but in no way stuffy, and he fits squarely into the new generation of cocktail drinkers—the ones who’ve lately made cash cows out of brands like Grey Goose.

Beyond the obvious youth push, though, I’d say Tony, like Mr. Jenkins, is another example of Tanqueray hedging its bets. Why do I say this? Because Tony is black. And while I’d like to think this choice could be arbitrary, I’m quite sure that—when it comes to multi-million-dollar marketing campaigns—nothing ever is.

Sure enough, in a press release, a Diageo marketing bigwig says the campaign hopes “to introduce a more contemporary and urban consumer to the house of Tanqueray.” I trust at this point we all know what “urban” really means. And the strategy makes sense—the hip-hop crowd has spurred a lot of growth in spirits sales. Look at what rapper Busta Rhymes’ “Pass the Courvoisier” did for cognac. If Tanqueray wanted to go all out, they should have just signed Snoop Dogg. He’s already got a song called “Gin & Juice” in which he raps about the potency of “Tanqueray and chronic.”

But Tony Sinclair is far more dandified than your typical urban pitchman. He wears bespoke suits. He preaches moderation. He’s British! The elaborate Tanqueray Web site proclaims that Tony is a practiced D.J. and posts a picture of him at the turntables. But the ads all show Tony mingling with a singularly un-hip-hop (and predominantly white) crowd. Also, the background tunes are more lounge than club.

I think Tanqueray hopes to have it both ways—maintaining the brand’s upper-crust heritage, while half-heartedly fishing for an “urban” sales boost. I don’t have a problem with that. But only time will tell us exactly who is ready to Tanqueray.

Grade: B. These are well-made ads, and Tony Sinclair has a certain gap-toothed charm. The odds are against Tanqueray, though. While vodka makes up more than 26 percent of all spirits sales (stats are for the 12 months up to July 2004), gin is at a measly 8 percent. That’s less than bourbon! At the last two parties I’ve thrown, multiple bottles of vodka have been drained, while the same bottle of Tanqueray has gone nearly untouched. Gin just has too distinctive a taste for your average mixed-drink fan these days. As for me, I’m sticking with my Pimm’s No. 1 Cup.