Whisky Advocate

It’s Not Like That!

September 24th, 2013

Ian BuxtonIan Buxton has a bit of a shout about the persistent idea that Scotch whisky marketing is all tartan and bagpipes.

I’m beginning to wonder if my fellow scribes haven’t watched too many episodes of Mad Men. It pains me to say it, but some of them appear stuck in the 1960s as far as whisky marketing is concerned.

Now I know I’m a grumpy, middle-aged (at best), white male and that automatically disqualifies me from having an opinion about anything, but I’ve got to get this off my chest, because the same tired old clichés keep appearing. It’s lazy writing and it’s neither right nor fair. This is the myth that will not die. Watch out: you’ll see it again and again.

bagpiperWhisky ads evoke “scenes brimming with tartan and sheep dogs, the chilly Scottish hills” according to one recent article. And here it is again: “the iconic image of an old man sipping neat whisky, preferably in a tartan kilt by the fireside, somewhere in the Highlands, has been used time and again by whisky brands.”

But really? When was that, then? We haven’t seen the old boy by his cozy hearth for at least 30 years! As for tartan, I flicked through the current issues of three different whisky magazines to see what I could find. Not a scrap of the stuff in sight. No kilts. No plaids. And what’s more, no old men either, no bagpipes, and only a distant glimpse of what might have been a fireside.

Perhaps it’s all to be found online and on our TV screens. So I took a look. Johnnie Walker’s film The Man Who Walked Round the World seemed a good place to start. It begins with a misty glen and a kilted piper. Maybe it’s all true then? Except that he lasts about 30 seconds, whereupon in strides a cross-looking Robert Carlyle, who snaps “Hey, piper! Shut it!” And that’s the last we see of him.

Now given that Johnnie Walker is the best-selling and most heavily advertised Scotch whisky in the world you’d imagine they’d be as guilty as anyone of living off the tartan-clad clichés that seem to obsess my colleagues. Not if their stunning TV commercials are any guide; work such as Android, Leap of Faith and Take the First Step (check them out on YouTube) are incredible pieces of film-making, far removed from the land of hills and glens. Not to mention F1 sponsorship and their stylish luxury yacht Voyager.

Maybe it’s lesser brands? William Lawson’s is a blended Scotch doing well in Europe and making huge gains in Russia’s burgeoning whisky market. Their TV work has plenty of kilts and strong, silent men. But again, check it out. It’s an unusual take on a kilt that has Sharon Stone giggling, that’s all I’ll say. And by all accounts, the New Zealand rugby authorities weren’t impressed with Lawson’s Haka commercial.

Fact is, Scotch whisky marketing moved on from tartan, bagpipes, and heather and weather years and years ago. Brands like Cutty Sark take pleasure in exploding that image, literally blowing up a cozy study, complete with decanters, leather armchair, and fireplace before going on to host parties in London’s trendy Brick Lane with a hip crowd of edgy artists, DJs, and burlesque stars.

Scotch isn’t conquering new markets, engaging with new audiences, and defining itself as the spirit of the age by living off past glories. So let’s let go of the clichés. Scotch isn’t for old men.

Except for me, obviously.

18 Responses to “It’s Not Like That!”

  1. lawschooldrunk says:

    Distilleries: I am desensitized by the overabundance of useless marketing. In fact, I am often turned off to the point that I won’t purchase from a distillery again (ahem, dalmore). Let the price and contents speak for itself. We’re a curious bunch. Be quiet and let us choose and discover.

  2. Serge Valentin says:

    … Now, stags and deers… ;-)

  3. Luke says:

    “Put your ear to your glass. Can you hear it? Can you hear the waves crashing off the rocks of Orkney’s coast?”

    No, not really…

  4. Joe Hyman says:

    I see more stills and barrels and workers in dirty overalls…
    Maybe there should be more race cars and musicians, Serge?

  5. B.J. Reed says:

    Hey, at Highland Park this is all a “Thor” point….. :)

  6. mongo says:

    i have to say that middle-aged white men don’t seem to have any trouble voicing their opinions on any subject in any medium.

    • Danny Maguire says:

      Here’s another middle aged white man voicing his opinion. Whisky is for anyone, male or female young or old. Drink it any way you like, just treat it with respect and enjoy it. Ian, I can’t remember the last time I saw any form of whisky using those cliches. As far as I remember Johnie Walker just needed to swap his topper for a jockey’s skull and he wouldn’t have looked out of place on any foxhunt.

      • Ian Buxton says:

        “I can’t remember the last time I saw any form of whisky using those cliches”
        My point exactly – yet it keeps coming round in articles and blogs. We (the writing community) really need to move on!

        • Danny Maguire says:

          Well, I recently saw one; for Glenfarclas. It was George grant lying there in tee shirt and kilt. In all fairness to him, he looked embarrased.

  7. MrTH says:

    On the other hand, whisky marketing seems to be trying so hard to be trendy that the connection to the land whence the spirit sprung is often lost. Anything that has a whiff of Scottish culture and tradition is seen as an embarrassment. I think that’s kind of sad. It doesn’t have to be all pipes and kilts, but one ought to remember where it was one came from. After all, if it’s no’ Scottish, it’s crap!

    • Ian Buxton says:

      Good point. You wonder if there isn’t room in the market for a whisky that wraps itself in tartan like those packets of shortbread biscuits.

  8. Thom says:

    I think the problem isn’t the marketers using clichés, but rather the writers themselves who are relying on tired clichés to frame a story. Let’s face it, far too many scribes are lazy and don’t bother to do the research to properly frame a story. The simple, even though outdated, contrast between the plaids of the past and the “edge” of the present is apparently too hard to resist.

    For me personally the bigger problem is the lack of transparency and visibility into the products themselves. I just ignore the bad writing, and for that matter I also ignore bad whisky – no matter how well marketed.

    • MrTH says:

      To be fair, most writers have to pump out (and sell) as much as they possibly can to make a decent living. Quantity often trumps quality. If they are not specialists in the topic at hand, a superficial understanding of the subject is the best you can hope for. Almost every time I read an article on a subject I know something about, I find things I think are wrong, unless it’s the writer’s chosen field. Most writers don’t have the luxury of choosing a field.

      • Danny Maguire says:

        I can go along with you on that one, but I’ve also read some rubbish by some writers who are supposedly experts in the field. Pays your money, takes your choice.

  9. Kilds and bagpipes have indeed long disappeard from Scotch whisky advertising. Not so much from whisky shows, though. The cliché isn’t dead, it just smells funny.

  10. Danny Maguire says:

    Anyone seen the new Glen Scotia packaging? Complete with Heelan Coo.

  11. Danny Maguire says:

    For those who don’t know a heelan coo is a Highland Cow.

  12. jimmy Curr says:

    Isn’t any advertising valid for some and not for others? I’m middle aged too, and seldom appear at a trendy bar full of affluent twenty-somethings. Perhaps because the closest of those animals is over 200 miles away in the concrete canyons of a city. Where I am it gets cold in the winter, very cold….-35 to -40c cold, and the notion of a fireplace, dogs at feet and a dram in hand really hits the spot.
    It’d be nice to see that advertising again, maybe “One day you will”.

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