I’m sorry, for some folks this article is going to be uncomfortable reading. Actually, I’m not sorry. This is a subject that doesn’t get a whole lot of light thrust in its direction and it really should. Let me take a step back and start with a question: When was the last time you saw a black person in a whisky advert?
This is the question I was posed the other day and it has bothered me since. Sure, there’s a fair mix of ethnicities thrown into the background of the recent Haig Clubman adverts, but I’m talking front and centre – the hero of the advert. It’s a question that really bothered me.
This bother became an itch, and it needed to be scratched. I started on a research mission into the archives, a huge stack of American magazines from the last 100 years. To my surprise black people used to feature prominently in marketing. What I discovered was fascinating, occasionally enlightening, but often shocking. From barely disguised racism, to well, just plain racism, through to an attempt at a redress as the whisky brands realised black people could actually be customers too.
The history of whisky advertising is indicative of how people are seen by brands, and how marketers will use simple tropes and misdirection to reframe the narrative to the culture around them.
This is, however, not intended to be an article heavy on conclusions. There’s simply not space for this kind of judgement. I’m going to show you what I found, and for the most part, let you make up your own mind.
‘Master thinks I’m a dandy at mixing cocktails’
The pre-prohibition era is, as you might have guessed, littered with some frankly appalling stereotypes. Advert after advert present the black man as either a lazy, illiterate ‘coolie’ character, such as Star Whiskey’s ‘It’zacly suits dis chile’, or as the servile, subjugated, barely-more-than-slave suited waiter, beaming in delight at serving drinks to his betters.
Club brand’s ad copy doesn’t even attempt subtlety, with 'Master thinks I’m a dandy at mixing cocktails'.
‘Master’? – my God you need a stiff drink to see what I’ve seen.
That said, it’s easy to be appalled by these lazy characterisations, but it’s worth remembering that this wasn’t exclusive to whisky marketing. These were accepted tropes across adverts, writing and in common culture.
Zipping into the 1930s and advertising really ramps up after prohibition. Have the stereotypes been flushed out in the interim years? Well, no. They have become more subtle as advertising employs it’s oft used trick of the half-truth to reframe history.
In Mount Vernon Whiskey’s advert we see President George Washington look on while exclusively black men build his distillery. What is not mentioned is that these men were all slaves. Washington had nearly 300 slaves at Mount Vernon and six were known to work the distillery. Other ads for the brand show a beaming man waiting on Washington and his cronies, dressed in a wig echoing his master, as he too is a slave.
The inconvenient truth is that these poor souls were buried in Mount Vernon in an unmarked plot until recent times. Washington wasn’t the only president to use slaves in his distillery either. In an 1805 advertisement Andrew Jackson offered a bounty for a runaway slave named George, whom he identified as ‘a good distiller’.
I’m really trying to keep this light, I promise, but context is important. As I continued to read through the archives I hoped that marketers were moving on from the most extreme stereotypes. Surely… Oh God no. If you are easily offended then look away now.
It’s of course not just US brands, with their Southern heritage at play here. No less than Johnnie Walker himself peers over an impossibly diminutive, servile man, in a crude caricature that was outmoded even then. It wouldn’t be the first whisky advert to be behind the times of course.
Canada Club’s ‘Africa Speaks’ ad looks even further back in time for its reference point. A black woman dressed in leopard skin and, for reasons that elude me, a 1700s British military redcoat, surrounded by ‘native’ African men with bones through their noses, smiles in awe at a pith-helmeted white man pouring a dram.
I want to laugh at this. It’s surely a forgivable reaction when presented with this sort of thing?
Not a laugh of hilarity, but of ‘smack the forehead – my God what were they thinking’ kind of laugh. I have to take a break and mull this all over.
It seems to me that it’s not so much the crass stereotypes in these adverts, it’s the more subtle fact that black people are presented only in service. Holding trays, bent in deference, serving the drinks and food. Never at the table, never drinking the whisky, never more than ornaments.
This is the insidious fact underscoring all these adverts. I know I promised not to aim for judgements here, and I’m trying, but a big bit of me dearly wants to be able to call the marketing managers of the past and ask if they assumed black people just didn’t drink whisky?
The business changes
Into the 1950s and things are starting to change. Joe Louis, retired heavyweight champion, launches a Bourbon and appears in the adverts.
His name is on the bottle too, which proclaims the liquid was ‘carefully selected by me to bear my name’.
A proud but rare statement. In one advert white and black drinkers enjoy a sup, as equals. It’s a short lived venture but to me a really important landmark.
The mid 50s saw the introduction of black culture magazines, Ebony and Jet. At first these magazines simply used the standard brand adverts, but then they changed. One of the first featured the R&B duo The Treniers. The twins flogged Early Times and Old Forester in a clever double spread, each extolling their brand’s characteristics as respected cultural icons, not as waiters but as the hero of the advert.
Into the 60s and things are even more aspirational. We see Johnnie Walker attempt redemption with a stylish shot of successful men enjoying their whisky in hand, who just happen to be black. Dewar’s even goes as far as having a black couple front and centre, with a white couple in the background, one of the genuinely rare examples of a brand daring to mix audiences and genders.
While it’s important to note that these adverts were for a specific audience, and were not generally used beyond the readership of Ebony or Jet, the investment in these adverts suggests a recognition of the slowly changing times.
Mainstream? Not quite
Into the 70s and the sprigs of change are finally blooming. We see black musicians fronting adverts in mainstream publications, from Ella Fitzgerald to Dionne Warwick, it’s a significant evolution.
I’m not saying this was parity but the narrative was also shifting, with an intense focus on black success, from sports people to unknown, but remarkable, pillars of society.
Black textile designer Robert E. Paige is featured in a Canadian Club advert, along with William McGhee, a plant manager at an electronics firm, celebrating success and reward. So too is Dr William R. Clarke, an erudite and refined banker, promoting Jim Beam. Listen, I’m not saying that sometimes this approach wasn’t a little clunky, a mite forced, it’s just that you only need look back 30 years from this point to see how things had changed.
Speaking of changes, one of the most fascinating discoveries was how companies marketed the same brand in different publications.
Take the Canadian whisky, Windsor adverts. Both hopelessly 70s and full of archaic nuance, but both showing their hero (be they black or white) as strong and independent.
I wish I could present this as progress but I think it perhaps shows the opposite, as these ads from Johnnie Walker Red in 1975 highlight, one in Jet and one in Esquire. Different ads for different audiences, not a single ad with black and white drinkers socialising together. Was the world really not ready for this yet?
Speaking of 70s it would be remiss of me not to share with you some of the fabulous Canadian Club adverts for the ‘CC Man’ – talk about of their time.
But we’re veering into frivolity with these and though I promised not to draw any conclusions, I believe it’s worth facing up to history because it gives lessons for the future. Did you know Jack Daniels was taught to distil by a man named Nearest Green. Green was a slave. It’s not a story you often hear told. For years this part of the brand’s narrative was whitewashed, and it’s only recently become part of the official Jack Daniels story. While this retelling is timely, some might say it’s just a savvy marketing move. As Peter Krass, author of Blood and Whiskey: The Life and Times of Jack Daniel, notes: “In the 1980s, they aimed at yuppies. I could see them taking it to the next level, to millennials, who dig social justice issues”.
So, I ask you: when was the last time you saw a black person as the hero of a whisky advert? Bells had a beautiful cinematic ad called The Reader some five years ago, for the South African market. That’s the only one I could come up with and that seems a big shame to me.