PRINT January 1987


flogging firewater through intoxicating images. And the critic makes himself available.

THERE'S AN OLD STORY, which may be apocryphal, that the Guinness Company of Dublin once retained Brendan Behan, then Ireland’s most eminent living poet, to write a slogan for their famous stout. According to the story Behan accepted the assignment for a nominal fee and asked that the company send over a few cases of the product for him to sample and come back and see him in a few days. In a few days the Guinness representatives returned. Behan did not answer their knock, but the door was open and they let themselves in. The floor of the flat was covered with empty stout bottles and with Behan himself. And on the wall, legend has it, was scrawled: “Guinness . . . it gets you drunk.”

Guinness’ famous slogan is “Guinness is good for you.” That’s a nice, direct slogan and many doctors and other users will attest to its veracity. And Behan’s slogan, also true, while never officially adopted by the company, still makes the rounds wherever that black beer is slowly poured.

Selling other beers seems to be much more image oriented. Miller beer is proud to be American, and as such it values difference of opinion as one of the keystones of democracy and beer sales. It doesn’t matter whether you drink Miller because “it’s less filling” or because “it tastes great” Budweiser is the reward for achievement––“This Bud’s for you” What Yankee fan isn’t sick of hearing Phil Rizzuto crow, “And you know what we say every time a New York Yankee hits a home run. Dave Winfield, this Bud’s for you!” Michelob, the Anheuser-Busch upscale brew, is sold with the Miami Vice look, the Miami Vice sound (complete with Phil Collins), and the suggestion that Michelob may help make tonight the greatest night of your life. Löwenbrãu ads tend to feature get-togethers of a few attractive management-class couples who are having the time of their life. And just before it seems they’re all about to play strip poker somebody invariably says, “Tonight, tonight . . . let it be Löwenbrãu.”

Selling liquor seems to be even more semiotically twisted. It seems to have something to do with cracking codes and sending signals. Bombay Gin’s ad says “Play to win.” Right over the goalpost.

Liquor companies love winners. Sometimes they take time out from selling their hooch to stand up and salute them. A few years ago Cutty Sark saluted “musical maverick” Philip Glass. Recently J&B scotch took out a two-page spread in Newsweek to salute art dealer Max Protetch. The “Rare Scotch” sees in Protetch “a Man of Rare Character.” To wit: “In the often changeable American art world, there are many proclaimed seers but few with true vision. Fewer still who can both identify the proper time for a movement’s happening, and significantly contribute to its creation. Max Protetch is one of those select few.” And that’s just the beginning of a 200-word essay. Protetch looks quite natty standing there in front of a drawing similar to the architectural drawings he made the public come to understand as art. On the facing page there’s a still life consisting of a bottle of J&B, a scotch on the rocks, a toy mounted soldier with his saber drawn, and a real saber, unsheathed behind the bottle. I don’t know about you, but I always sheath my saber before taking a drink. But we’re talking rare characters here. “While most people tolerate the status quo, some make their own alterations.” I guess the sword is for making alterations. I don’t understand this avant-garde ad quite yet, but it must work—it did make me feel like a drink. Maybe a shot of Absolut Warhol.

Crown Royal, a premium Canadian whiskey, advertises with a picture of a shattered bottle of the stuff and the tag line, “Have you ever seen a grown man cry.” Although I’m sure it’s aiming for an opposite effect, this ad always reminds me of the story of the Irish gentleman with the whiskey bottle in his pocket who slips and falls, feels liquid running down his leg, and says “Oh my God, I hope it’s blood.”

I remember someone showing me a book that claimed liquor ads were full of subliminal content, such as screaming skulls airbrushed into the ice cubes in a glass. I could never understand why airbrushing screaming skulls would make anyone want to buy that kind of booze, but I can see how subliminal messages might have an impact. Maybe there’s something working on the unconscious in “We put every Old Grand-Dad barrel through 45 seconds of hell,” with its vivid image of flames shooting out of a bourbon barrel. But why work on the unconscious when you can make a direct statement, like Hennessy cognac’s “the civilized way to unwrap,” which shows an unwrapped man and an unwrapped woman unwrapping a bottle in front of a roaring fire. “It works everytime,” says suave Billy Dee Williams, opening another bottle of Colt 45 malt liquor on TV. And on cue there’s always a knock on the door, another knockout spokesmodel calling. As B. S. Pully remarked, “Whiskey hits the sex brain.”

Alcohol advertising works. Its image games help you “name your poison.” I’m old-fashioned. I drink Guinness because it’s good for you and it gets you drunk. But for the right price I’m available to the highest-bidding scotch company.

Résumé follows:

HOME: Brooklyn


HOBBY: Reading the New York Post.

LAST BOOK READ: The Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract.

LATEST ACCOMPLISHMENT: Getting tickets for the seventh game of the series.

WHY I DO WHAT I DO: Because it’s there.

PROFILE: Handsome, witty, modest.

QUOTE: “Astroturf is killing the game.”

Glenn O’Brien writes a column on advertising for Artforum.