Ever since that epoch-making day, lost in the mists of antiquity, when the unknown Scotsman first squeezed the moisture from a lump of peat and through an alchemy wrought with malt, barley and still, created uisge beatha, the water of life, Scotch whisky has made a unique contribution to the art of living.
It is at once the most civilised and barbaric of drinks. Treat it with respect and it will repay you with incomparable kindness; abuse its beneficence and it will send you reeling into the gutter. Small wonder that those who understand whisky hold that its mysteries are best vouchsafed through discreet initiation and learning.
But, alas, this ancient wisdom is to be discarded, another casualty of the two most calamitous forces of our time: the obsession with youth and the misuse of marketing.
The Scotch whisky distillers have done their market research and the findings could not be worse: the product is seen as old and fuddy-duddy.
In the unforgiving phrase of the researchers, it has a “pipe and slippers” image. It is difficult to imagine anything less desirable in an age when to be hip, cool and youthful is to be alive and breathing and to be anything else is to be an unfortunate embarrassment, like madness in the family.
Plainly, this could not be tolerated and so the whisky manufacturers and the marketers have got together and come up with “maltopops”, fun drinks for the generation that leaves its brains at the bar door and returns several hours later to vomit at the same spot.
The Easy Drinking Company, part-founded by the owners of Famous Grouse, has brought out three alcopops called The Rich Spicy One, The Smoky Peaty One and The Smooth Sweet One. All three could equally bear the single label, The Get You Hammered Quick One.
To help reach its market of young sophisticates, the Easy Drinking Company is sponsoring a semi-pornographic art exhibition in Glasgow entitled “Sex and the Truss”. Though this may shock whisky’s traditionalists, it contains a hidden honesty that is commendable. As many a blue-nosed veteran will testify, those who have drained too deep of the water of life and subsequently essayed a sexual venture rapidly discover they might as well be wearing a truss.
I hope the whisky distillers do not have cause to regret their foray into the world of youth marketing. In their defence, however, it ought to be conceded that marketing’s singular contribution to life is to lend it an unreality that makes the reality more bearable. Stripped of branding and all that it means in terms of cachet, warmth, and illusion, the business of consuming would be infinitely more dull and indeed intolerable.
There have been efforts in the past to persuade advertisers to be more honest, not so much in the claims that they make but in the fantasy with which they clothe products.
But in marketing, as in life, too much honesty is unbearable. Marks & Spencer famously tried some realism with its “I’m Normal” ad featuring a junoesque nude proclaiming her outsized normality from atop a trembling hillock, her seismic pulchritude threatening a geological collapse to rival any natural disaster.
Can you imagine what it would do for sales if ads accurately depicted the people who buy products? If instead of the wholesome Oxo family we saw the slobby side of Britain, in which people eat not together at a shared table but on their own, in front of a television or computer screen, like furtive auto-eroticists in pursuit of quick relief?
Suppose the truth were to be told and BMW drivers were depicted as ill-mannered show-offs; if children were shown not as lovable moppets and scamps, but as bite-sized urban terrorists?
What if the racegoers at Royal Ascot were shown not as well-bred toffs and ladies but as successful City spivs and footballers’ wives; if the patrons of McDonald’s and the readers of The Sun were shown as they are?
What if Britons holidaying abroad were shown not as Adonis and Venus and family in a sun-kissed paradise, but as Ron Slob and his partner on a foreign bender with the kids; if the buyers of financial services were shown not as salt-of-the-earth Middle Englanders providing for their futures, but as gullible and greedy chancers?
It is a fact that truth is inimical to marketing success. Let the makers of Scotch whisky wrap their product in the aura of youthful allure, a fictitious world in which young, clean-shaven men with chiselled features flirt with beautiful girls with perfect teeth, and sexual bliss is the hidden promise. Let us avert our eyes from what we might see revealed should the painted scenery be drawn aside and the stage filled with characters from real life rather than central casting.
But anything, it would seem, is preferable to a tableau in which boon companions share a dram or two, their crystal tumblers sparkling in the reflected flames of a log fire. Heaven knows, one of the old sods might like a pipe and, in doing so, signal the final death throes of an ancient product.