The Black Community’s relationship with liquor has long been fraught. From billboards to the ubiquitous liquor store, spirits, especially Malt Liquor, flowed liberally in neighborhoods that could not secure much-needed services and goods i.e. grocery store with fresh fruits and vegetables. More recently, artists have highlighted spirits in their music and videos as part of the aspirational lifestyle. The wide spectrum of brands have partnered with Hip Hop artists in lucrative deals. These artists have gone from hype people to brand owners with their own lines. Jay-Z, Sean Combs, Nicki Minaj. K Michelle. The list is long. 2006 was the turning point. Cristal managing director, Frederic Rouzaud, shared his racist views on his brand’s growing black demographic. Jay-Z used his music to salve the wound and even the score. On On To The Next One he raps, “I used to drink Cristal, them motherfuckers racist. So I switched gold bottles. On to that Spade shit.” He then spotlighted his Armand de Brignac line Spade in a music video for his single “Show Me What You Got.”
To see Ted Danson of Cheers fame hock Smirnoff Vodka in a series of commercials is not unexpected. His four fifteen second commercials last year, “1864,” “Made In America,” “Most Awarded” and “Regular Guy” were introductory and an attempt at re-branding the spirit as cheap, not inexpensive or affordable, and all-American. 2018’s racialized political climate likely forced or hastened a pivot to pair Danson with celebrities firmly entrenched as others. The new series of ads features Jonathan Van Ness of Queer Guy in “Pet Names,” Lavern Cox of Orange Is The New Black in “Who Wore It Better” and Nicole Byer of Loosely Exactly Nicole in “Trophy Collection.”
Ness’ ad lacks substance; he simply does not have the skill to layer the spot with subtext or humor. His over-the-top delivery of one line is cartoonish. When he says, “Oh I am still nursing this one boobie,” the camera only gets him in profile and his laugh in response to Danson is unsettling. Moreover, the banter, though it is barely that, has little to do with the premise of the spot, “You don’t need a lot to have a good time.” Even the attempt at irony with tiny glasses falls flat. Smirnoff’s “Pet Names” is a fail!
Thankfully the black women shine with their lines which may involve some adlibbing. Cox’s, “Who Wore It Better” is well crafted. Danson sets the premise. Smirnoff is for everyone. Cox interrupts his inclusive list indicating that only she can define herself; this echoes Kimberlé Crenshaw who emphasizes that the number of intersectional identities isn’t as important as the ways in which systems marginalize the identities. So when Cox switches the conversation from identity to style she takes ownership. She then delivers the punch line with all the aplomb and wind effect of a movie star.
Ted: Smirnoff Vodka is made in America for everyone in america. No matter who you are, where you come from, what you look like,
Laverne: Or who wore it better.
Ted: Is it me?
Laverne: No Sweetie. It’s me.
Byer’s ad also shines a light on her ability to turn a line into a story. As she and Danson lounge on a beautiful day, she banters with him about his awards. Their timing and mannerism cement the ads success. Like Cox, she appears in control of her image/brand and is able to add nuance to the premise. Her accusatory, “You wanted me to know” is confident, confrontational and a bit flirtatious. This forces Danson to sit in his straight man character and stare directly at the camera. She does not change her glare at him.
Ted: Smirnoff is the most awarded vodka brand of the decade. As a multi-award winner myself I really respect that.
Nicole: This one just says gentlest lover.
Ted: Oh no Nicole that’s private.
Nicole: You brought it here.
Ted: I know. I know.
Nicole: You wanted me to know.
The ads reveal Smirnoff’s, indeed the liquor industry’s complicated relationship with marginalized people, proving the difficulty of allyship in business. These spots may serve to acknowledge and signal boost these groups. Representation is important. But when that representation sinks into tropes, clichés, stereotypes then it is flawed and even more damaging. Are we to applaud the brand and Danson for working with the LGBTQ+ and black women? For seemingly embracing body positivity? Danson’s co-stars likely see this as a symbiotic relationship. Remember, Smirnoff is marketing ‘cheap American vodka’ to a very specific demographic. The fifteen second ads may indeed be problematic, but allyship is not achieved in one fell swoop. This is a start!