A print ad for Glenfiddich claims the whisky inspires ‘great conversation’. Since when has ‘I bleedin’ love you, you’re my best mate’ been great conversation?
Marketing’s deeper thinkers, the sort who stay behind after work, have long argued that there is something metaphysical, possibly transcendental, about a brand. By some mysterious process, branding confers on a manufactured object a value beyond its intrinsic worth and invests it with an aura capable of arousing trust, loyalty and affection, emotions more properly reserved for other human beings rather than mere things.
Unfortunately, marketing’s deepest thinkers are not necessarily doers, or even achievers. It is one thing to muse on the spiritual quality of a brand, quite another to evoke it. The history of marketing is strewn with failed attempts to manufacture the magic, to take a brand and touch it with greatness. Such a disappointment is inevitable in a flourishing market economy where competition is intense and dozens of products are virtually indistinguishable one from another. For instance, how do you advertise the motor car, when technology and standards of production have made every model as reliable and predictable as every other? The favoured technique is to concoct an ersatz mystique and promote it quite separately from the product. There is Hamlet without the ghost; this is the ghost without Hamlet. How many car ads have you seen that are visually provocative, surreal, and mysterious in the same way that a fretful dream is mysterious, but feature the product only as a last and almost apologetic thought?
Let us not, however, be too hard on the creative minds upon whose tolerance impossible burdens are placed. How, for example, to advertise a brand of Scotch malt whisky? Heaven knows, there are hundreds of brands and although each has a unique flavour, that alone is not enough to make it stand out.
It was against that cluttered background that the latest print ad for Glenfiddich was created. It shows a few thoroughly modern young men – tieless, shirts untucked – standing chatting in Glasgow’s Corinthian, one of that city’s hottest night spots. The text reads: Callum argued for goal line technology to tell if the ball had crossed the line. Alex said that with such technology the Germans might have won in ’66. “Exactly,” replied Callum. Under that is the tagline: “Inspiring great conversation since 1887.”
Well, we all know that in Scotland sly, anti-English sentiment passes for great conversation, but that aside, it is perhaps foolish to attempt to build one myth on another, in this case the mythology of the brand on the fiction that whisky inspires great conversation. It does no such thing. The drinker may delude himself that after the second or third his conversation is great, but a sober onlooker, or worse an unfortunate interlocutor, knows better.
Whisky is indeed a drink with a strange power. It can take the mildest of men and transform him into a fearless warrior willing to confront all-comers, great and small, male and female, real and imagined. It can make orators of the inarticulate, wrest profundity from shallow minds, transform the commonplace into rare wit, and even turn the tone-deaf into a soaring countertenor.
The tragedy is that these wondrous works, like oriental ice sculptures, are transparent, brittle, and doomed to melt by morning. Tonight’s great conversationalist is tomorrow’s drip.
Whisky invites those who succumb to its grip to play the radio panel game “Just a Minute” in reverse. The golden liquor slips across the palate, sinks warmly to the stomach, and, no longer either liquid or gas but some substance unknown to science, rises to the brain compelling the speaker to repetition, hesitation and deviation, not for a minute, but for hour upon hour.
“You know what,” said Callum.
“What?” replied Alex.
“You know what…”
“What? What do I know?”
“You know what, I’ve known you, you personally, you, for donkey’s years…”
“No, longer than that.”
“Longer than what?”
“Longer than donkey’s ears.”
“That’s very good. You know what. I love you, you know that, I love you, you’re my best mate ever. Ever. Mark my wordsâ¦ and here’s another thing, another thing, mark my words.”
That, my friends, is a great conversation of the kind whisky has inspired for generations. As the Scotch connoisseur will tell you, usually at length and in a language that drifts in and out of spoken English, a single malt has no need of a brand aura. It is the aura.
Incidentally, by way of a footnote, a reviewer of Glasgow’s Corinthian notes admiringly that the venue is so upmarket that “the toilets are even staffed by a personal assistant offering help, chocolate and mints”. It is the mark of the true whisky devotee that when he or she repairs to the lavatory, the water of life lapping the bladder’s brim, help will be required.