The Baroness Philippine de Rothschild is by no means the first person to get in a muddle about the overlapping of “free publicity” and marketing, but she is probably the most distinguished.
As widow of Baron Philippe de Rothschild, it falls to her to head the wine business that bears the family name.
One of her duties, as she sees it, is to continue the practice established by her late husband in 1945 of decorating the label of each vintage of Mouton-Rothschild with a different work of art.
We can only guess at the baron’s motives, but it seems reasonable to assume that he had an intuitive grasp of branding and, wishing to reinforce the already considerable cachet of the chateau, chose aestheticism by association.
That the policy survived for more than 50 years suggests that it worked tolerably well, to the satisfaction of vendor and tippler alike.
But times change, we live in a fearful world, and nothing can be trusted to be as it seems. The dowager, perhaps owing to her station in life and the remoteness that aristocratic formality may induce, seems to have been unaware of the snares that await the innocent and the guilty alike. So it was that when she came to choose the label for the 1993 premier grand cru de Pauillac she picked a portrait of a naked girl by the Paris-born artist Balthus. Her second mistake was to export the product to the US.
Exactly what happened next is unclear. Bottles of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild do not enjoy wide circulation in the US, any more than they do here, but it would be reasonable to assume that when they do make an appearance it is at the tables of the prosperous chattering classes. And you may be sure that on such occasions the host, or more likely hostess, will see to it that the guests know just how lavishly their palates are being indulged, and that the label will be to the fore.
How ghastly it must have been then when a diner, eyes popping, and speechless with indignation, pointed to the bottle of Pauillac, clutched his throat, and rushed to empty the contents of his mouth down what Americans call the bathroom.
Once alerted, the others would quickly appreciate the awfulness of what had been perpetrated. For here, staring them in the face, in the house of a liberal, was an incitement to child abuse.
Thanks to divine providence, not one of the custodians of America’s national conscience present on that awful occasion answered the incitement and abused a child. For if they had, we would surely know about it. And had they been caught, they would just as surely have pleaded diminished responsibility, citing Baroness Philippine de Rothschild as the begetter of their infant fixation syndrome.
At this stage it ought to be made plain that the Balthus portrait was of a little girl. To Americans, just as tobacco means cancer, naked little girls mean sexual abuse. And just as portrait of a cowboy inhaling a cigarette is an invitation to contract cancer, a picture of a naked child is an incitement to commit unspeakable acts of sexual molestation.
Americans take it as read that free will, self-control, and the ability to distinguish between right and wrong are outmoded concepts in a liberal democracy in which all of us are victims and none of us is to blame. Where blame is to be apportioned, and copiously at that, it is at the door of big business.
So when McDonald’s sells hot coffee to a woman who spills it in her lap, scalding herself in the process, she is awarded damages of $2.9m (2m).
Small wonder that Baroness Rothschild quickly withdrew the 30,000 bottles of incitement from American soil.
A single instance of Chateau Mouton-Rothschild-induced paedophilia could have ruined the company overnight.
No one, of course, is suggesting that she set out to inflame the libidos of child molesters who have a taste for fine wines (why should she?), rather the implication is one of negligence. In choosing the portrait of a naked child to adorn her bottles, she disregarded its likely effect on people of a weak disposition.
She protests her innocence. She never imagined “this charming work of art” could be seen in any sexual context, let alone be linked to the problem of child abuse. Moreover, she says: “Marketing plays no role in my choice of artists, only my own taste and the reputation of the painter.”
As labelling is perforce an exercise in marketing, she is unwittingly in error when she disavows the commercial aspect of her choice. Her statement, however, was provoked by “ridiculous” suggestions that she had chosen the label to gain free publicity in the United States.
That does indeed seem absurd. For it would take an odd sort of publicist to compromise an illustrious brand by linking it to one of the most sordid and despised aspects of human depravity.
There is, then, quite simply, no truth in the adage that all publicity is good publicity. Unless, of course, you happen to be Kelvin Mackenzie and the thing to which you are seeking to draw attention is not a vintage claret of great distinction, but a television station of no distinction whatever. But that, as they say, is a different story.