Scotch on the Rocks

Whisky advertising between the World Wars
By Mark Newton
Few periods in the whisky industry could really be declared as stable. However, during World War I Scotch whisky hit particularly hard times. The Temperance movement in the UK - a social campaign against the consumption of alcohol - began to alter the public perceptions of drinking. That, combined with ever increasing levels of taxation during and after the war, led to a decline in the amount of whisky that was consumed in the UK. And thanks to the National Prohibition Act of 1919, Scotch whisky's most important pre-war market in the United States went dry. But the industry wasn't going down without a fight. Pioneer of advertising, Tommy Dewar, stepped up on his soap box in newspaper articles and slammed Prohibition, accusing it - or the 'pussyfooters' responsible for it - of a range of things. He declared it of being class warfare, all the way through to it being responsible for putting hundreds of people in hospital due to the dubious results of underground production methods.

Clever creatures that they are, advertisers managed to navigate the treacherous legal waters, and side-stepped the changing public perception of alcohol, in order to keep on selling whisky. In the US, whisky could easily be obtained legally for health reasons, via one's doctor. And certainly in combating the propaganda of the Temperance movement, tapped the reputation of doctors once again. Medical professionals endorsed the use of alcohol, declaring that when consumed sensibly, whisky was for one's benefit. In the case of Sandy Macdonald, it promoted itself as a 'safe' whisky - so safe, in fact, that 'your doctor will confirm this'.

White Horse, a highly successful brand during the period, promoted itself in copy-heavy advertisements as a 'good heart tonic' on doctors' advice on both sides of the Atlantic. King William IV decided to promote quality and advised generally to drink less, but drink better - indeed sentiments that are still echoed in modern society.

In the post war era, despite great economic and social challenges, whisky continued to evolve, and many brands thrived. Following the 1929 Wall Street crash, the repeal of Prohibition came in 1933 and during the difficult economic conditions of the 1930s, whisky makers turned a profit once again. The 1930s were in general a period of economic depression and hardship. But with peacetime came the pursuit of more leisurely activities. For the first time in a major way, brands sought to promote more optimistic, aspirational images. Drinking whisky meant you were someone.

Buchanan's Black & White blend capitalised on activities that were firmly aimed at the middle to upper classes - sporting scenes such as fox hunting or hounds endured for decades. Dogs became a particular motif for the brand, with the popular black and white terriers materialising in 1937 - painted by artists such as Mabel Gear and Morgan Dennis - and which proved especially popular in the United States. Like many other brands, a slogan evolved and became more defined - in this case, Black & White was 'The Scotch with character'.

As previously established, Dewar's continued to be pioneers and big spenders on advertising. After the war they utilised numerous illustrations from Geoffrey Squire, who specialised in the 'portrayal of robust character and lively expression'. His images were aspirational lifestyle scenes targetted at the middle and upper classes, whether it was focussed around cinemas, tennis or fishing. Perhaps unsurprisingly for the era, these adverts were promoting whisky as almost exclusively for men: for fathers and sons, for wartime commanders, for husbands and men's double tennis players. Women were - if featured at all - in domesticated roles. This was something that lingered uncomfortably until after World War II. In 1936 Dewar's placed the first ever colour advertisement in a British newspaper. The Daily Record printed a full-page advert bearing a bottle of White Label.

Dewar's continued the 'Whisky of his Forefathers' campaign, the longest running campaign in whisky history. Even prior to the war, Tommy Dewar said that the company received 'more enquiries from all over the world for this particular show card than all the others put together', thus proving that Scottish imagery was showing enduring resonance for drinkers across the globe. The artwork that formed the basis of the series, 'The Spirit of his Ancestors' was reworked by Septimus Scott and consequently used on merchandise from ashtrays to playing cards; and even transformed into a musical retail display. In addition to this were other campaigns, particularly in the US, that focussed on Scottish regiments such as the 3rd Indian Cavalry and Black Watch, and another that focussed on the numerous international medals the brand had won.

Teacher's centenary in 1930 highlights the number of options available to advertisers at the time. It celebrated the occasion by using young children to promote alcohol sales - which would be illegal for an advertiser to get away with these days. The 'Right Spirit Boys' featured two young lads in different scenes, such as handing their school teacher a case of whisky, and playing cricket with the use of empty whisky bottles for wickets. Teacher's launched a series of water jugs that would infest pubs up and down the country, and linger for decades to come. There were also metal trays, which also featured the 'Right Spirit Boys'. Indeed, they even appeared on Teacher's branded blotting-paper sheets - along with characters such as Sir Walter Scott and Gladstone - for that glorious era before we thumb-typed our correspondence on phones.

Johnnie Walker didn't rush to adopt new formats, maintaining the illustrative lead of the Striding Man. However in the 1930s it moved sharply towards photographic montage, aligning itself with major cricket or football sporting events - more the fashionable interests of the common-man. This was an interesting contrast to other brands that from the off targeted themselves at those more affluent, almost elitist pastimes, indicating the gradual segmentation of the general market.

There was still a great deal of advertising in what would be known as B2B, or business to business, in today's marketing which is to say, trade advertising. The Famous Grouse draft advertising sketches by F Wilson in 1931 show how the brand invited custom from those involved in imports and exports by 'five gallon casks' for £18. Another advertisement from the 1930s shows the elegant aesthetics of the period - and also how the brand was referred to still as 'Gloag's Grouse'. And like other whisky brands of the era, the Famous Grouse also firmly aligned itself with the affluent fieldsports fraternity.

The final article in this series will focus on post-war advertising and the popularity of single malt whiskies which had started to come through.

Geoffrey Squire

(1896 - 1989)

Not to be confused with the artist of the same name, born three decades later, Geoffrey Squire was a prolific commercial artist. He served in the First World War, on battlefields of France and Belgium. After the war he was based in London where he became a member of the Society of Artists in Commerce. His clients included Heinz and Oxo, but Dewar's was his biggest and most long-standing client. In the 1950s he also became a comic strip artist and children's illustrator, creating characters such as the Wizzigogs.