History

Politics, Mavericks and War

Scotch advertising in the early 20th Century
By Mark Newton
Early whisky advertisements were used as an effective outlet for companies to speak about legal and political issues of the day, such as the increases in duty from Lloyd George's People's Budget, 1909. The latter set a benchmark for whisky to be aged for a minimum of two years, and advertisers openly complained that this created a shortage of stocks, which would drive up the price of whisky.

In 1906 a case had been brought about by Islington Borough Council in prosecuting two wine and spirits merchants under the Sale of Food and Drugs Act of 1875 for retailing what they regarded of 'substandard' whisky. However, this was simply grain, patent still whisky, and not malt pot still whisky. The whole heart and soul of whisky - still spelled with an optional 'e' around this time - was being publicly fought over. This case became a battle between the malt and grain distillers, although it was eventually resolved in 1909. William Ross of grain distillery Cambus decided to have some fun in his adverts to declare his 7 years old Cambus patent still whisky as 'notably different to all others in particular delicacy and charm of flavour', and that there was 'not a headache in a gallon'.

Who were the notable figures who stood out from the crowd of early whisky advertisements? One man was Tommy Dewar. The son of John Dewar and later owner of the Dewar's brand, he became Vice President of the National Advertising Society and believed that 'Advertising is to business what imagination is to poetry.'

Between 1892 and 1893, the expenditure that Dewar's spent on advertising stood at just over £3,000, which has the same purchasing power today as £180,000. Ten years later, the budget had grown to £20,157, the equivalent of over £1million today.

What did that sort of money get you back then? In 1898 Dewar's commissioned the world's first drinks advertisement in cinemas. In this short film, kilted Scotsmen danced in front of a backdrop bearing 'Dewar's Scotch Whisky', beside a table with a bottle of whisky. It was very innocent and focused on Scott's romantic Highland imagery.

Yet there was a level of sophistication about its use, as the film was based on Dewar's wider 'Whisky of his Forefathers' advertising campaign. Introduced in the 1890s, and inspired by an oil painting, this went on to become one of longest-running marketing campaigns in history.

In 1911 Dewar's created the largest mechanical sign in Europe, on the tower at Dewar's Wharf, London embankment. The sign featured a kilted Scotsman, over six miles of electric cable and 1,400 light bulbs. As part of its motion, the kilt would swing and the highlander would raise a glass to his mouth. Rather cleverly, this sign was visible from the Houses of Parliament.

Perhaps one other company could rival Dewar's in their creative marketing and excessive spending during the period - Leith-based firm, Pattison, Elder & Co. Their budget stood at £60,000 in 1898, well over £3million in today's terms. Pattison's advertisements veered away from the traditional romance, and used curious eye catching images, such as of deep sea divers, and especially of Imperial might. In addition to print advertising, they unleashed a tide of merchandise, from glassware and mirrors, to branded cycling maps. For their most unusual marketing trick, the brothers ordered five hundred African Grey parrots to be delivered into the hands of merchants. They had the parrots trained to perform slogans such as 'Buy Pattison's whisky!' out loud. The parrot motif appeared in Pattison's print advertisements with the motto: 'speaks for itself'.

Scotch whisky advertisements had evolved significantly between the birth of the modern industry to 1914, from simple price lists that plugged the wares of family merchants, through to illustrative, brand-based images. By the eve of the World War I, many Scotch brands had painted themselves as the drink of choice for the Edwardian sporting class. Advertisers shoe horned in all the regalia of the rich into their advertising, cluttering them up with just about everything from golf clubs to tweeds, in images that featured on posters or playing cards.

But World War I brought great challenges to the then 133 distilleries of 1914. Prime minister of the day, Lloyd George, was no fan of alcohol. The whisky industry would bear the brunt of his savage taxation policies, as well as heavy regulations from the centralised Control Board. One radical change was a ban on the distribution of whisky under three years of age, an arbitrary line drawn to reduce the excessive drunkenness thought to have been caused by young spirit. The resulting fall in sales led to the closure of 20 distilleries within a year.

Advertisers took umbrage at such policies. J & G Stewart bemoaned that the Immature Spirits Act meant that consumers would have to pay more. But naturally there was 'no shortage, however, in the stocks held by the House of Stewart.'

Haig & Haig's advertising gripped about the growing restrictions on trade as wholesalers were able only to sell to those with whom they traded in 1916. That meant soldiers outside of the country wouldn't be able to get any whisky upon return, and conscientious objectors would get their rations. Even after the war, in 1922, Haig & Haig continued to complain in Punch about further unfair levels of taxation.

To be seen as very much in tune with the people and positioning drinks in a more positive, patriotic light, advertisers were quick off the mark with wartime associations. Dewar's rolled out posters featuring fighter pilots and the slogan 'Dewar's: Keeps you flying'. However, their most audacious wartime brand exposure came from a bus called Old Bill. Old Bill was part of a fleet of vehicles dispatched to France in the early years of the war; there, it carried troops along moonlit cobblestone roads behind the battlefront, unleashing a barrage of brand advertising to foe and allies alike.

Johnnie Walker's iconic Striding Man marched on at the hands of artist Leo Cheney. The adverts - some of which were styled as cartoons in publications such as Punch, showed the Striding Man visiting the officers at the recruiting line, which was still going strong. In the Illustrated London News, and Sphere, Buchanan & Co. ran adverts depicting striking wartime imagery such as a destroyer sighting a Zeppelin.

Usher's were even less subtle about the matter, and firmly aligned the brand with the warship HMS Lion. Usher's underscored the fact that they had the largest stocks of whisky in maturation in Scotland and - given the impact of the war on stocks - many advertisers were keen to emphasise that their brands were still of 'pre-war quality and strength'.

The next article in the series will look at Temperance, Prohibition and the rise of lifestyle advertising during the interwar years.



Leo Cheney (1878-1928)

Leopold Alfred Cheney was born in Accrington, Lancashire and was first a bank clerk. The first pupil to enrol on Percy Bradshaw's cartoon correspondence course, he eventually sold cartoons to publications such Boy's Own Paper and Bystander, before becoming the staff cartoonist on the Manchester Evening News. He continued the work of Tom Browne's 'Striding Man' Johnnie Walker's after the outbreak of World War 1, and later became political cartoonist for the Daily Mail. He died in Sussex in 1928.