Varnish Remover

The Hair of the Dog

Valedictorian, produced for Seagram Americas.

Valedictorian is more than an appeal to the thirsty to drink Crown Royal. It is the first break in the liquor industry’s self-imposed ban on hard-liquor advertisements on television. The purveyors of spirits complain that the decades-old ban doesn’t apply to beer and wine, and cite this as the reason why grapes and hops have been gaining market share against the hard stuff. Industry strategists knew that the ads were bound to be controversial; the initial spots, therefore, are designed to slip the product into the commercial dialogue with minimal splash. No happy groups hoisting highballs in the Polo Lounge here; no scenes from the days–or nights–of Crown Royal and roses. The spot is a little like the negative ads fielded early in a political campaign: If you can get them by without being too offensive, almost without being spotted, the message goes down a lot more smoothly.

Using metaphor to make its point, Valedictorian clearly targets the male viewer. We see a large, obviously well-trained vizsla (if it wasn’t well trained, who would want to be near it?) bringing the morning newspaper up the steps. The scene evokes the gracious life, even if it doesn’t quite translate to the real world: As dog owners know, the family pet–if it fetches the newspaper–is as likely to shred it as to deliver it. The setting is obviously upscale, and so is the reading matter–the New York Times. The music is Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance; the vizsla, the spare narrative tells us, is an “obedience-school graduate.”

We next see an identical vizsla bringing in a velvet-pouched bottle of Crown Royal. (Or, is it the same dog, doing double duty with the help of editing techniques that make it look like the twin of the first–a commercial takeoff on Multiplicity, which brought multiple Michael Keatons to the screen?) This dog is not just a graduate, the narrator and chyrons tell us; it is the “valedictorian”: a clear invitation to the viewer to see Crown Royal, too, as being at the top of the heap. If the class of canine brings a sense of nobility to the ad and product, this particular specimen is so well trained that it intensifies the image of controlled elegance, of comfort–an almost royal dog striding through a minimalist palace. Perhaps, echoes of Elgar’s very similar Coronation March whisper across our minds. This is all a postmodern variation on the blend’s brand name. The advertisers deploy the images to persuade the well-off and upwardly mobile that Crown Royal should be the Chablis or chardonnay of their generation. Real men, the message here has it, don’t drink wine–any more than they would own a poodle; and upscale men can do better than a beer and a mutt.

Thus the ad hits its target–but it never attempts to tell us why Crown Royal hits the spot. The appeal is to a different kind of taste.

We get a brief glimpse of a dark glowing warmth in cut glass as the pouch falls away, much as a shift might fall from the shoulders of a man’s lover. Valedictorian floats subliminal notes like this one, but uses few words–only nine, compared with the 90 or more in the usual 30-second spot. This ad is almost a nonpolitical bumper sticker, a simple image designed to give a familiar name fresh life.

Finally, we see the two vizslas, waiting for their master’s choice: Crown Royal, ready to be consumed with the Times. The unanswered question, of course, is this: Has the first dog waited all day to fetch the paper, or is its master about to have the first drink of the day sometime in the morning?

On the surface, Valedictorian is innocuous. The aristocratic hounds grab our attention, and the ad reaches for those who are in charge–of their world, their careers, their money, and their vizslas–the kind of men who are in control of their drinking. Or so the company would like us to think. But this won’t placate the critics of alcohol advertising, who charge that the underlying purpose of the ad campaign is to recruit new drinkers, especially among the young. Almost ritually, the company will reply that the campaign aims merely to compete for market share among those who already drink. This spot has provoked calls for Congress to enact a second Prohibition–not on drinking alcohol, this time, but on marketing it in this way. One of the first hard-liquor ads we see on television, Valedictorian may be one of the last.

The owners of Seagrams also control Universal Studios and MCA. Just as Disney’s 101 Dalmatians is coming to neighborhood theaters, Crown Royal’s twin vizslas are coming into your homes. Man’s best friend, the ad seems to tell the best of men, is telling us that Crown Royal is man’s best drink.

–Robert Shrum